What’s up, Contenders? Terry Malloy here reporting live from the Waterfront.
I walked into LAWLESS knowing fairly little about the film other than that is was directed by John Hillcoat, whose previous films THE PROPOSITION and THE ROAD were films I enjoyed. But more than that, those films had a very specific style and voice which made me a fan of the director’s work. So I was quite happy to go into LAWLESS relatively unaware of what I was going to get. You may want to do the same! But I’m excited to review the film because I had a blast with it, and I’ll keep the spoilers to a minimum.
LAWLESS is easily Hillcoat’s most commercial and crowd-pleasing film yet. This might disappoint some folks who particularly dug the bleak and depressing outlooks of his previous films. While LAWLESS has a lot of bite (with its R rating well-earned), it is nevertheless an entertaining and thrilling ride more than a profound meditation on crime and family.
The set up is pretty simple, while still feeling like a fresh take on the gangster genre. And this IS a full on gangster movie! The Bondurant brothers are moonshiners in Virginia during the prohibition era. When Chicago law man Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) moves into town in order to take a piece of the pie from all the various moonshiners in the county, Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy) refuses to bend a knee. After all, he is a Bondurant, and Bondurants bow to no man. Or at least Forrest doesn’t.
As things with Charlie Rakes and the Chicago mafia get more complicated, the brothers Bondurant will go through quite a lot to keep their business and their honor intact. Shia LeBeouf plays the youngest of the brothers, Jack. And make no mistake; this is a leading role for Shia. He is the protagonist of this ensemble cast. So take that as you will. If you can’t stand The Beouf, you may have issues with LAWLESS. I personally found the role to be perfect for him as an eager, flashy, and unproven element. Jack Bondurant feels a little bit like the real world Shia, at least my perception of him.
The rest of the cast is also pretty phenomenal. Tom Hardy’s Forrest is the Godfather of this hillbilly opus...
...but Shia’s Jack is the (much less intelligent) Michael Corleone.
Jason Clarke plays middle brother Howard, a bit of a drunk, but also a heavy enforcer when necessary. (Sonny Corleone, anyone?) Dane DeHaan plays Cricket, the crippled friend of Jack who is a moonshine making, car engine revving genius. The consigliore of the Bondurant clan. Jessica Chastain is the Mama Corleone who quietly loves Forrest and cares for the boys’ empire with loyalty and fierceness.
Guy Pearce doesn’t quite fit into THE GODFATHER comparison. Pearce is a potboiler of a villain here. Disdainful of the rednecks he is muscling, Rakes wears leather gloves to do his dirty work and keep his distance from the grit of the country.
Rakes is a fearless and reprehensible man who enforces the law as only a gangster can. I guess what makes THE GODFATHER masterful and makes LAWLESS merely a rippingly good time at the movies is that Rakes is so clearly the villain figure, whereas GODFATHER has a more complex and undefined sense of right and wrong and good versus evil.
The Bondurant boys are lovable rogues providing a service that happens to be illegal. The Corleone’s have crime in their blood and can’t shed their violent ways no matter how high they rise. So yes, I’d say most gangster movie fans will have a great time watching LAWLESS. The violence comes in tense and action packed sequences that are well captured by John Hillcoat. The characters are compelling and all have something to do beyond simply advancing the plot. Each character I’ve mentioned above has their own arch and the cast does great work to pull you in and get you invested.
What doesn’t work? Well, I only have a few minor gripes. The film makes much ado about the apparent “legend” of the Bondurants. The boys are supposedly indestructible, and we are treated to a few family tales that serve as proof of this legend. I understand that the film is based on a true crime book by Matt Bondurant, a descendant of the men in the film. So while this awesome tale is apparently ripped right out of history, the “legend” elements of the story got a little much. Forrest and his brothers do amazing and death defying things. They prove their toughness through their actions. I would have believed in the legend without having said legend beaten over my head repeatedly.
I’d also say that while Jack Bondurant is a good lead role for Shia, it is a bit of a thankless one. Jack is constantly making mistakes and puffing up his chest to prove himself. He fails as often as he succeeds. The other problem is that Jack is simply less interesting than Forrest, but that may be the Tom Hardy factor. Hardy is, for my money, one of the most exciting actors working today. I love a good tough guy and Forrest just owns this movie for me. From his cardigan sweaters, to his humorous grunting, to the brass knuckles in his cardigan pocket; Forrest is a disciplined, hard, and fearless man. The character probably works better as a supporting one, but I loved him and would’ve gladly seen more of his adventures over young Jack’s.
There is also VERY little Gary Oldman on display here. He plays some sort of big time Chicago gangster and has a couple of awesome moments, one of which involves a Tommy gun. But this isn’t a particularly meaty role and Oldman has probably no more than 5 minutes of screen time in total.
As I said, those are minor complaints. None of them bothered me as I was watching the movie, only afterwards upon reflection. I loved LAWLESS and feel it is remarkably entertaining and engaging. I’d say it is primarily a gangster action film. So if that sounds like fun to you and you don’t need every gangster film to reach for Oscar gold, then you’ll probably enjoy LAWLESS too.
And I’m Out.
Terry Malloy AKA Ed Travis
Photos courtesy of The Weinstein Company (from their official images shared on their website).