The Bondurant brothers are the best bootleggers in Frankin, Virginia. Lead by the fearless and imposing Forrest (Tom Hardy) they have everyone, including the law, buying their product. Walk in Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a brutal and violent city cop who is willing to do anything to stop the Bondurant brothers and their distribution. After a severe beating and the hand of Rakes, youngest brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf) enters the family business and as you’d expect, the two opposing forces come head to head.
Disappointing would be the most appropriate word to describe Lawless. Not a bad movie by any means, but considering the talent involved, it should have a hell of a lot more quality than it does. Throughout his career Hillcoat’s ability to create a palpable and visceral atmosphere within his stories has been his calling card, that ability to add texture to the film’s environment is what, for me, made him stand out from the rest. So it was unfortunate to see that vanish from this attempt. It promises, on more than one occasion, to fall into the grime that would have given the film the edginess it required, but each time it fails to capitalise, seemingly happy to play it safe and stay clean and polished.
And this isn’t helped by the disjointed narrative. From start to finish it stinks of film that’s had a troubled editing process, and one which has left more than what was needed on the cutting room floor. There is a moment with LaBeouf’s character around about the 75 minute mark that honestly feels like the kick start into the second act, so the fact that it happens more than half way through the runtime is disconcerting. It brushes over so many characters and plot threads that it struggles to avoid becoming a complete mess.
Many of the problems do seem script based; everything feels so diluted and forgettable. For example Gary Oldman’s involvement – he’s great when he’s on screen, but his actual impact or need to be there is laughable.
Gladly, however, the film does have a saving grace – the cast. Unanimously excellent in a way that ultimately disguises how underwritten they actually are, the film is worth seeing just to witness the on screen talent at the top of their game. Hardy is, as always, absolutely magnetic, and LaBeouf, although solid, is a bit overshadowed by the strength of the rest of cast. Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska are excellent and have decent chemistry with their respective love interests, even though both of their characters add nothing to plot. But it is Guy Pearce’s psychotic Rakes that steals the show, creating a genuine threat as well as adding a bit of humour.
Lawless is a film with countless problems, but the quality of the acting on show does go a long way to keep it watchable and enjoyable, while a punchy third act does at least provide a satisfying climax.