As an audience we see point A and can immediately figure out point B, but Lawless makes the journey between those two points a dull one.
John Hillcoat’s Lawless, which feels more like it belongs on HBO instead of theatre screens, is a mediocre attempt at a crime drama. Assembling a strong team of people in front of and behind the camera, Hillcoat has the materials to make a good period piece but, as the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.
Set in 1931 during Prohibition, Lawless takes place in Franklin County, Virginia. Thanks to some awkward exposition-filled narration at the beginning, we learn that Franklin County is referred to as the “wettest county in the world” due to its massive production of moonshine. The Bondurant brothers are one of the most popular bootleggers in the entire county. Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia LaBeouf) make and sell some of the best liquor in the area, and a brutal fight early on establishes Jack as the weaker brother in comparison to Forrest and Howard’s brute force.
Trouble comes from the law when Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a corrupt representative for the District Attorney, tries to intimidate the brothers into paying him off with some of their profits. Forrest refuses, and in no time people start getting killed. Meanwhile Jack manages to score a distribution deal with a mobster (Gary Oldman) which leads to more money and, for Jack, an inflated ego. Love stories also come into the mix as Forrest falls for a city girl (Jessica Chastain) who works at his bar, and Jack constantly tries to court a preacher’s daughter (Mia Wasikowska).
It’s obvious that Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave are going for classical storytelling with its formulaic approach, but nothing is brought to the film that elevates it beyond its generic foundation. When Chastain’s character is introduced, her coupling with Forrest is inevitable. As an audience we see point A and can immediately figure out point B, but Lawless makes the journey between those two points a dull one. Once we get to point B, none of it feels earned or believable. The only reason why all of Lawless’ point A’s get to their respective point B is because it’s what’s expected of them and nothing more.
The cast, while impressive, does little with what they have. Tom Hardy spends his time grunting loudly, and Clarke screams more than he speaks while Chastain and Wasikowska simply play their parts. Guy Pearce’s transformation into Nicolas Cage levels of insanity appears complete with his hilarious, campy performance as Agent Rakes. Gary Oldman, taking the same route as Pearce, hams it up in his small role.
The only exception in the cast is LaBeouf, who has yet to build up a resume as impressive as his co-stars. His performance comes across as someone desperately trying to prove themselves as a serious actor. It might have worked in a more somber film, but with Pearce flailing about and Oldman smacking people with shovels LaBeouf looks like he’s unable to have any fun.
Lawless’ late-August theatrical release came as a surprise to some. Despite its presence in Cannes’ main competition, the film was getting released in what’s usually referred to as a dead zone. Most late August releases are reserved for mediocre fare, the kinds of films that are burned off from studios instead of being hyped up like their summer releases. Although the talent involved suggested a different outcome, Lawless turned out to be a perfect fit for the late-August release window.