Set against the backdrop of the Depression, “Lawless” is an on-screen blood feud that leaves no remarkable impression. Redemptive qualities include its exceptional cast and cinematography. However ,in its attempt to be both a gritty gangster film and a historical, coming-of-age story, the film falls short of engaging the audience with an otherwise dull premise.
In 1920s Virginia, the Bondurant brothers, Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia LaBeouf), are local legends, prospering in the moonshine industry during the onset of prohibition. The bootlegging brothers soon come to blows with the new Special Deputy, Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) and other corrupt authorities seeking a cut of their profits. Based on the true-life exploits of Franklin County’s Bondurant brothers, “Lawless” is a medley of male bravado, intense scenes of violence and a smidgen of romance.
Most of the cast give top-notch performances. Tom Hardy is brilliant as stoic middle-brother, Forrest, who is convinced of his own immortality, while Guy Pearce is utterly despicable as the malicious and murderous Special Deputy Charlie Rakes. Gary Oldman also delivers in the film as mobster, Floyd Banner, though he is not granted a significant amount of screen time.
As for the main protagonist, Shia LaBeouf plays Shia LaBeouf with an accent. LaBeouf’s performance as younger brother Jack is not wholly convincing, and he seems out of place throughout the majority of the film. Jack’s character—the timid kid given the opportunity to prove his worth–is one step shy of typical LaBeouf roles, but LaBeouf can’t seem to embody his character as well as his fellow cast members, coming off as amateur and trying too hard.
“Lawless” is shot beautifully, both visually and audibly creating the rustic, backwoods environment of Franklin County, Virginia. Director John Hillcoat captures both the time and setting, but while the physical background is well established, the backgrounds of most of the characters are non-existent. Few characters evoke any sort of empathy or emotion from the audience, making it difficult to support or detest their actions against other persons. Aside from Jack, other major characters are written one-dimensionally. The characters’ only saving grace are the actors’ performances, which are just good enough to make them intriguing.
However, even with a talented cast and beautiful scenery, the storyline is about as engaging as watching liquor distill. Assorted scenes of graphic violence, implied or explicit, become a gratuitous effort to make the film more raw and exciting. The romantic elements fit awkwardly into the bloody mix, and attempts at any sort of humor are more conspicuous than they need to be.
“Lawless” isn’t really sure what type of movie it wants to be. It unsuccessfully aspires to place the metropolitan, mobster-movie tone into a small town, while also creating a nostalgic and naive coming-of-age story drowning in classic Western grit and blood. This seems like an exciting combination, but all these elements combined simply cancel each other out.
For a movie about guns and booze, “Lawless” is a bit on the dry side. But if you find yourself with a bottle of strong liquor and a few hours of free time, it may be worth a view.
Speakeasy Rating: B
Starring Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, and Guy Pearce
Rated R for strong bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity