The Prohibition-era thriller Lawless looks pretty but has trouble making it to the finish line.
John Hillcoat came out of the gate with Australian western The Proposition, a sleeper/cult hit, and hit the mainstream with his adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road—while not a western, per se, it contained a lot of the barren landscapes, only darker and grittier than The Proposition. It seems Hillcoat is sticking to his wheelhouse as Lawless takes place in the dusty backwoods of 1920s Virginia and chronicles the exploits of three brother bootleggers.
Howard Bondurant (Jason Clarke) is the eldest and most alcoholic of the three. More muscle than brains, he helps his younger brother Forrest (Tom Hardy) work out the kinks in their business, along with the small restaurant they run. Forrest is the brains of the operation and the most feared of the three. Legend has it that he, and to some extent his brothers, can’t be killed. Baby brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf) is the least seasoned and mostly just acts as the driver for their deliveries. Everything is going fairly smoothly until Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) steps in to stop the show.
Set up as a cops and robbers story, it’s Rakes who’s the real villain with this impeccably slicked back hair and clean-freak nature manifested in his perpetual habit of wearing gloves. However, it’s also a coming of age story for youngest Jack who looks to break out of his shell and prove to his brothers that he’s a man. He pursues the local Pastor’s daughter Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) who slowly succumbs to his charms as he becomes more sure of himself. Another female also enters the picture, although more directly, when Maggie (Jessica Chastain) seeks a job as a waitress at their little diner. While she’s slowly involved in all of their lives, it’s with Forrest whom she connects the most.
From the onset, the film looks beautiful and the acting—yes, even Shia—is uniformly great. Written by Nick Cave (yup, the musician), who also wrote The Proposition, the script is ultimately the downfall of the film. The film’s slow, meandering feel just never connects with the multitude of characters it’s exploring. In addition to those already mentioned, there’s also Jack’s crippled friend, and future business partner, Cricket (Dane DeHaan) and Gary Oldman as local mobster Floyd Banner. While Oldman is fantastic as Banner, the character seems superfluous. A glorified cameo at best, one expects more from a character so charmingly portrayed by Oldman but he never ties into the big picture.
Similarly, Chastain’s Maggie is immediately introduced as an integral part of the film, and the Bondurant clan, but she never grows into anything. Her character is never given time to grow, instead being thrust upon the brothers and is suddenly just part of the family. Sadly, the same can even be said of Guy Pearce’s fierce portrayal of Charlie Riggs. Pearce oozes creepiness and evil, despite playing a lawman, and while he’s the clear bad guy of the film, his character just feels underdeveloped. Perhaps it’s because once he’s introduced much of the war he wages against the Bondurants is shown through a montage. So rather than really feeling the tension rising between the two camps, it’s merely glossed over. Luckily Pearce is such an arresting actor that he makes Rake such a vile character that he keeps up the semblance of some tension, but that’s only because he creates a character that’s so thoroughly hated.
When a film has so many characters and side stories, they need to somehow come together logically or emotionally by the end to justify it all. Lawless never does either. Hillcoat is obviously confident in the look and feel of the film, as it’s essentially the same drifting atmosphere as his previous ones, but it has almost double the characters and that’s clearly what he, and writer Cave, struggle with. Beginning strong, they just can’t pull it all together in the end, and that’s unfortunate. Hillcoat clearly has the talent, as does the rest of his cast and crew, but it never delivers the punch it should.