Today: February 21, 2024

Lawless

Director John Hillcoat and writer Nick Cave clearly have

Director John Hillcoat and writer Nick Cave
clearly have a fondness for brothers living outside the law, at war with the
world.
After the
stunning Aussie Western The Proposition, which saw one brother having to hunt down his elder sibling in order
to save baby bro from execution, Lawless, with it’s trio of bootlegging brothers, feels like a
natural progression. And, like
The Proposition, Lawless paints its outlaws as heroes, bucking the system in
order to make a buck during the Great Depression.

During Prohibition, Franklin County, Virginia, was known as ‘the
wettest county in the world’ due the illegal alcohol being distilled
there. The Bondurant brothers, leader Forrest (Tom Hardy), upstart Jack (Shia LaBeouf) and brutal enforcer
Howard (Jason Clarke) run a
successful moonshine business out of their café. But, with Chicago gangsters like Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) looking to Franklin to
provide them with booze, the law is closing in. Corrupt, ruthless Special
Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) is
happy to take protection money but when Forrest refuses to pay Rakes sets out
to teach the Bondurants who’s in charge.

Adapting Matt Bondurant’s (Jack Bondurant’s grandson) novel The Wettest County In The World, Hillcoat and Cave certainly know how to build tension. Lawless has all the hallmarks of The Proposition; the
evocative vistas, the conniving and sinister characters, the threat of
underlying violence that lurks beneath every scene just waiting to unleash a
torrent of bloodcurdling mayhem. When the violence comes it is swift, brutal and often nauseating to
behold. The result is a sense
of dread, a foreboding doom, that, despite the Bondurants’ belief that they are
invincible, everything will end with bullet-riddled bodies and enough carnage
to make the opening sequence of Saving
Private Ryan
look like a day at
the beach. But it never
comes. Instead Lawless raises
your hopes to rapturous levels and then lets you down with a damp squid of an
ending. Even the final
shootout lacks any real grit.

Like HBO’s current Prohibition-era drama Boardwalk Empire, Lawless has wonderful attention to detail. The costumes, dialect and overall look of the film
make it an immersive and fascinating watch. But like Boardwalk it also feels episodic. There are too many storylines going on at once. The battle with the law should take centre stage but
all too often fills in the gaps between the romance between Hardy and former
city girl Jessica Chastain or LaBeouf’s determination to become as tough as his
brothers while trying to win the heart of Mia Wasikowska’s God-fearing innocent or Howard’s increasing
dependence on alcohol to drown the memories of World War I. Individually
these stories are hugely engaging but, unlike Michael Mann’s similarly-styled Heat, they never quite gel with the overriding story arc.

Shia LaBeouf gives yet another one-note performance as a
character who was almost certainly more interesting on the page. It’s not
that he’s poor as Jack, you just don’t really care about him. He turns up, whines a bit, snivels a lot and runs his
hands through his greasy-looking mop. Really whets your appetite for his upcoming performance in Lars von
Trier’s new film where he’ll be doing all of the above naked. And possibly weeping. Clarke’s Howard is never
given enough exposition, which is a shame as you feel there is a great deal of
backstory to his shell-shocked ways, but, when he is on screen, he does enough
to bring a red mist of alcohol-induced hostility. Chastain and Wasikowska
both bring a level of china doll-beauty to the screen but their characters are
underwritten, idealised images of femininity; Chastain’s femme fatale
contrasting with Wasikowska’s innocent virgin.

With his slicked-back hair, trimmed eyebrows and toothy menace,
Guy Pearce’s Rake is the kind of villain you expect to see in a Harry Potter
movie, delivering an over-the-top, pantomime performance that’s endless fun,
offering up a real architect of evil for the Bondurants to battle. When
Pearce is doing his creepy, leering reptilian-like thing you can’t help but
relish his madness. Meanwhile
Tom Hardy is quietly stealing the show. As Forrest he is a brutal force of energy, a subdued,
grunting bear wrapped in a comfy cardigan. His Forrest is so emotionally stunted his responses to
everything come entirely through a series of groans. It’s the kind of understated, captivating performance
for which Robert De Niro made his name. Still
carrying a hefty bit of Bane’s weight, Hardy hulks and skulks around, muttering
his lines in a gravel voice, dominating the screen. It’s a shame then he’s forced to play second fiddle to
LaBeouf.

Lawless is a film that should have been great, so nearly is
great, but is let down by an unsatisfying finale and a concluding voiceover
that manages to dispel much of the myth and legend that has gone before. To their
credit, Hillcoat and Cave have created a film that undoubtedly sticks to
historical fact but perhaps the term ‘Based On A True Story’ could have leaned
more on the ‘Based’ rather than the truth to tell a ripping good yarn. Part Bonnie and Clyde, part De Palma’s The Untouchables, Lawless is a film worth seeing for its visuals and another stunning
turn by Tom Hardy.

Alex Moss Editor

Alex Moss’ obsession with film began the moment he witnessed the Alien burst forth from John Hurt’s stomach. It was perhaps ill-advised to witness this aged 6 but much like the beast within Hurt, he became infected by a parasite called ‘Movies’. Rarely away from his computer or a big screen, as he muses on Cinematic Deities, Alex is “more machine now than man. His mind is twisted and evil”. Email: alex.moss@filmjuice.com

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