There’s just something missing with John Hillcoat’s LAWLESS. Maybe it’s joy… perhaps it’s fun… but there’s noticeably a lack of Wild West feel to this story of outlaws who live and thrive in a society where law and order are practically non-existent. There’s still plenty to sink you teeth into, mainly due to Tom Hardy and another standout performance by Dane DeHaan (CHRONICLE), but LAWLESS plays it a little too safely for my liking with its by-the-book approach to storytelling about a family of bootleggers.
Adapted from Matt Bondurant’s novel The Wettest County in the World about his family’s hooch history during Prohibition, LAWLESS follows a trio of Bondurant brothers – Forrest (Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke) and the baby of the group Jack (Shia LaBeouf). They’re right at the heart of the budding moonshine business up in the hills of the Virginia countryside, but when Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) is brought in from Chicago to make sure things “run smoothly” around those parts, it’s a matter of principle for Forrest to not give in and pay the shakedown money that’ll keep their operation undisturbed. Of course, this sets off a cat and mouse game between the Bondurants and Rakes, and when you’re watching the battle of wits and muscle unfold between Hardy and Pearce, the movie really hits. Here, you get to see two men willing to protect their interests at all costs, willing to go to the necessary lengths… it just so happens that their positions are at odds with one another.
Hardy’s Forrest is the most interesting of the brothers, with a lot of that credit going to Hardy’s subtle performance, but also to the story being told about this one particular character. He’s the patriarchal figure of this family, making the decisions for his other two brothers - one who’s unreliable and the other who’s still very much a boy – but this isn’t the man he wants to be. He does it, because he has to… if he doesn’t, who will? He’ll protect what’s his, if called upon, but he’d very much like to just mind his own business and go on living his life without being bothered, or, for that matter, bothering anyone. He doesn’t go looking for trouble… trouble seems to find him, and, in the case of Rakes, it’s trouble that he’s not going to be able to dispose of easily, with one good brass-knuckled punch.
When you include Jessica Chastain as a city transplant in this laid-back country living, it adds yet another layer to Forrest Bondurant. This is the type of woman he’d never imagined would walk into his life, and now that she has, he has no idea what to do with her. He would like to be a better man for her, but, in order to do that, he’s fighting against his nature, what he is, to try to be that something more. Trying to do that when you’re at war with someone carrying a badge, in it for their own greed is a difficult proposition to follow through on. There’s not much to the Chastain character, except to be that light at the end of the tunnel for Forrest, but she brings enough to the picture to create that emotional bond between them that draws you into everything Forrest represents on a whole different level.
But that’s only about half of LAWLESS, with the other half focusing on Jack’s opportunity to step up for the family and become a man in his own right. As the younger brother, he’s always believed that not only could he do what Forrest has been doing, he could do it better, more efficiently and for a hell of a lot more money. He has the initiative and maybe some level of book smarts to make it work… but his maturity and street smarts are where he’s lacking, and you know it’s only going to lead to problems when the whiny runt of the family tries to take on more responsibility in place of his more seasoned brother.
It’s a story we’ve seen before, but Shia’s consistently annoying “I have initiative” on repeat doesn’t do anything for LAWLESS. If anything, the film takes a big step backwards in moving from Hardy to LaBeouf. Hardy brought mystery and intrigue as to where he might end up in both his internal conflict with himself and the external one with Pearce. LaBeouf does none of that, following a fairly predictable path towards resolution as his character progresses. A side story involving his courting of a preacher’s daughter (Mia Wasikowska) tries to throw some variety in for this gangster wannabe who thinks he’s got everything figured out, but that out of left field aspects never quite gels with the rest of the picture and, if anything, slows down its deliberate pace even more with scenes that don’t quite go anywhere in the overall scheme of things.
It’s only through Dane DeHaan as Jack’s best friend and partner in crime Cricket that LaBeouf’s performance doesn’t tumble into unbearable. It may be a small role but it’s incredibly pivotal in taking LAWLESS to the darker places it’s willing to go in order to establish the stakes between the Bondurants and Rakes. Cricket could have easily been the crippled kid who gets caught in the middle with his disability alone being used to get at you as he becomes a pawn in this war. But DeHaan attaches a general likeability to Cricket that you can’t help feel for him in the no-win situation that’s enveloped him. He’s not one of the brothers, as much as he’d like to be, but he’ll be treated like one by the opposition without so much as a second thought.
LAWLESS is a bit of a mixed bag for me. There’s enough here to recommend it, with Hardy carrying just about all of that goodwill on his own. But prepare yourself for the film to begin sliding about halfway through when it jumps into full Shia LeBeouf mode. That may be the natural progression of this family’s evolution, but it also makes for a weaker story.
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