Director: John Hillcoat (The Proposition, The Road)
Screenplay: Nick Cave (The Proposition)
Starring: Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Jason Clarke, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 115 min
I don’t think that this is the film that John Hillcoat or Nick Cave wanted. That’s not to say that Lawless is bad – far from it. In fact, I’d say that there are quite a few moments of brilliance, which is to be expected considering the enormous talent involved. Yet, just like the title was altered from The Wettest County in the World to The Promised Land to The Wettest County to, finally, Lawless, one gets the sense that producers had a hand in more than simply a title change.
If you haven’t heard of the film, all you need to know is this: it’s about three West Virginian brothers (LaBeouf, Hardy, Clarke) making moonshine during Prohibition. The film begins with an awkwardly expedited 30 second prologue, where we see the three brothers as kids, before moving forward into their adulthood. Here, we are subjected to what might be the clunkiest, most unnecessary voiceover narration (by LaBeouf’s character) that I’ve come across in some time. I can almost envision the producers meeting when this idea was brainstormed – “I don’t think people will get what’s going on if we don’t have Shia explain it!” While I have a soft-spot for a good voiceover narration, this was poorly executed and the films suffers from it.
From both Hillcoat and Cave, we’ve come to expect slower drawls broken up by brief segments of intense violence. Lawless follows that trend – it’s brutal at times – although unlike The Proposition or The Road, it doesn’t have the contemplative, haunting tone to it that we’ve come to expect from Hillcoat. Rather, its plagued by an inconsistent tone and a desire to be more of an action movie than a period genre film.
Tom Hardy again proves to be one hell of a fun actor to watch. He’s outstanding as the mumbling, callous, unspoken leader of the brothers. Jason Clarke will probably be the actor most forget to talk about, but besides Hardy, he might be the one who shines the most as the alcoholic, World War I vet older brother. Guy Pearce’s character is zany and completely over-the-top, but for a genre piece like this, he fit wonderfully and was a great contrast to the other backwoods West Virginian characters who are all filthy, sweaty, and bloody throughout. Shia LaBeouf, Jessica Chastain, and the rest of the cast are all very good – but, in particular, one expects more to come from Gary Oldman’s gangster character. He is completely underutilized and, dare I say, only used as a poor plotting device.
Lawless is a flawed, but gorgeous film with stunning cinematography, amazing set designs, and great acting, but its inconsistencies make it only a good film rather than a great one. There’s a great film there somewhere – there are definitely scenes that stick out and make me want to yell “That’s what this wants to be!” – but probably much of that great film was left in the cutting room. It’s worth the watch for its positive aspects alone, but it won’t go down as the classic many of us were hoping for.