LAWLESS is easily the most accessible and audience-friendly movie in John Hillcoat's catalog. That's not to say that the movie can't go to some brutal places, but it's nowhere near as dark as THE ROAD or THE PROPOSITION. And sadly, nowhere near as deep. People expecting MILLER'S CROSSING or THE UNTOUCHABLES may be a bit surprised to find out that it's not quite as rich as those two movies, but people willing to stick with it will find that LAWLESS has its own rewards.
One of my main issues with the movie, frankly, may seem superficial, but I think if the accents weren't so thick and almost parodic, I may have enjoyed the movie more. If you think Tom Hardy's Bane was difficult to understand, his Forrest Bondurant is damn near impossible to follow at points. Imagine the frog in "One Froggy Evening" except he never sings. Much of the threat from Forrest comes from his physical presence, and Hardy can do that with ease. Hardy's performance, other than his accent, is actually quite good. It's just a struggle to understand him much of the time.
Those sharpening their knives for Shia LeBeouf might want to put them back in the drawer for now - he's the heart and soul of LAWLESS, and the movie is mostly told from his point-of-view. He's actually not bad, but for much of the movie, Jack Bondurant isn't given much to do. Jack (LaBeouf) has always been seen by his brothers Forrest and Howard (Jason Clarke) as something of a screw-up. Jack doesn't take to violence like the other Bondurants and he not good for much more than hauling the moonshine that the Bondurants collect throughout the county. The Bondurants are well-liked in the area - legend has it that no one can kill a Bondurant - and even the local police get along with them.
But the Bondurants haven't yet met Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) a special agent for the district attorney, and when they do, it's only a matter of time before Rakes and the Bondurants come to blows. The Bondurants don't roll over for anyone as long as they can get their bathtub whiskey to the gangsters in Chicago - gangsters like Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) - and make some money. They won't give their profits to anyone, especially not this nancy-boy deputy from the city. But Rake is a brutal, sadistic, violent man, and he will stop at nothing to break the Bondurants.
While Forrest is slowly falling for Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a young woman with a past, Jack is interested in Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), a local preacher's daughter. But Rakes is looking for anything that he can use to destroy the Bondurants, and the brothers find that they may not be as invincible as they thought.
John Hillcoat is a master at tension. He knows how to stage the violence, to make it brutal and frightening, so that during the quiet moments there's always the feeling of constant threat. Just behind a tree or around the corner are potential dangers, and Hillcoat's direction gives the movie a razor-sharp edge that at times comes really close to overpowering. And when the tension breaks, and the killing starts, Hillcoat stages it very well, giving those scenes real power and thrust. Nick Cave's script is sparse but mostly effective.
One surprising supporting performance was from Dane DeHaan (from CHRONICLE, earlier this year) as Cricket, a young man who's good with his hands, even if his legs don't work as well. He's earnest and kind, and like CHRONICLE DeHaan gives a genuinely heartfelt performance. I think it would be wise to pay attention to this actor in the coming years.
But LAWLESS suffers from a lot of fat. Much of the middle section of the movie consists of the Bondurants avoiding Rakes, Rakes looking for the Bondurants, and in the meantime Jack steps up and becomes the Bondurant that he's supposed to be, when he's not courting Bertha. Cave's script is surprisingly funny - when you can understand Hardy's brutish Forrest, he gets off some of the best and funniest lines of the movie. But LAWLESS, while entertaining, simply doesn't resonate as much as Hillcoat's other films or most gangster movies in general. We've seen much of this before in other films in the genre, and while LAWLESS is well-shot, well-acted, and well-written, there isn't much more going on under the surface. LAWLESS, when it's working, is quite enjoyable, and I could see this, minus some of the violence and the nudity, fitting right in with other gangster movies of the period. I just wish it didn't evaporate from the mind so quickly once it was over.