by Justin Jasso (@jjasso007)
In the broadest sense, you can classify films into your general cinema or art house films, but once in a while, you’ll get a film that isn’t quite art house but isn’t necessarily your general cinema experience, either. It doesn’t quite fit into a specific category. Lawless, John Hillcoat’s newest film is a hybrid in this mold. It has action, brutality, some comedy, romance and darkness. And to top it off, it’s not quite a period piece, but may be considered one due to the fact that it takes place during the Prohibition Era. Also, because it’s somewhat of a blend of everything, it may not hit the numbers that it should, and that will be a shame for an overall fine film.
It is 1930 in a backwater town in Franklin County, Virginia. The Bondurant brothers, timid Jack (Shia LaBeouf), quiet Forrest (Tom Hardy), and maniac Howard (Jason Clarke), aren’t the only bootleggers around, but they’re the best and most respected. Their livelihood is threatened by the arrival of Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a special deputy from Chicago, who has come to Virginia to stop those who violate the law of the land, specifically those selling moonshine. What that means is that those who pay a fee to Rakes are allowed to continue bootlegging while those who don’t are shut down, usually in a way that ends life at the same time. However, the Bondurants are a strong family and refuse to pay Rakes for something they’ve been doing for free all these years and their steadfastness instigates a war.
As we often see with Depression Era gangster films, the lawbreakers are the protagonists and the lawmen are the villains. Lawless does not try to make the life of the Bondurants appear holier-than-thou. When it comes to bloodletting, they can be as vicious as their adversaries. Yet, as bad as they can be at times, Rakes is much worse. He’s that cunning bad guy that audiences fall in love with hating. This type of role requires the right amount of everything and Pearce knows just how far to take things to amplify the menace without turning the character into a cliché.
LeBeouf and Hardy take the principle amount of screen time where the brothers are concerned. LaBeouf has the primary arc in Lawless as his character begins as a timid boy and grows into a man during the climax of the film. Usually, we see LaBeouf playing a similar character in all of his films. Maybe LaBeouf just doesn’t have that great a range as an actor at this point in his career, and we still see “him” in every role. Fortunately, in Lawless, he is solid and sincere and doesn’t make any mistakes. Hardy, on the other hand, is wonderful as the older brother, Forrest. He’s calm and quiet but there is an intensity behind his eyes that shows you wouldn’t want to catch him on a bad day. There’s also a sense of innocence in Forrest, even though he is the main enforcer of the brothers. Given more to work with, his character could have been Oscar-worthy, but we’ll settle for a great performance from Mr. Tom Hardy here. The other supporting actors all fill their roles well, for what they are worth, with only Jessica Chastain (The Help) given any real meat to work with.
The ending gives us what we want, but in a roundabout way, and it takes a little too long to get to that conclusion. For most of the film’s two hours, it builds toward an inevitable climax, but when that arrives, there’s something understated about how it unfolds. It’s not as satisfying as it might be and the epilogue, although welcome (with a funny moment), is just a couple beats too long. Lawless uses top-notch acting, a strong screenplay, and enough violence to hold even most viewers’ attention, but will it make the money at the box office that it should? Time will tell. It may not be “immortal” and has a few flaws here and there, but even the best apple may have a bump and bruise covering it’s sweet meat.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars