It’s been seven years since director Jeff Hillcoat, actor Guy Pearce, and singer/songwriter/screenwriter Nick Cave united to make The Proposition, one of the ballsiest, trippiest, awesomest Westerns (yeah, I know it was set in Australia) to come along since the 1960’s. With Lawless, the trio reunites to provide their take on the American gangster genre, with Hillcoat assembling a talented cast that includes Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, and Jessica Chastain. Surely this movie will be the greatest Depression-era gangster picture since Bonnie and Clyde, right? Right?
Wrong. Lawless is not a bad movie by any means; in fact, it’s a solidly above average film. However, it doesn’t meet the bar set by The Proposition. Instead of the inventive, poetic gangster noir I was anticipating based on the talent involved, we’ve received a sprawling, unfocused period piece more akin to the shameless Oscar bait that Hollywood cranked out between the late ‘80s and mid ‘90s. Lawless ends up feeling less like an earnest attempt to make a thrilling gangster movie and more like a vehicle designed to garner Oscar nods for its cast and crew.
Based on Matt Bondurant’s historical novel, Lawless details the bootlegging exploits of the Bondurant boys in 1930’s West Virginia. The story picks up with the brutish, taciturn Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy) already heading a thriving moonshine business in the midst of the Great Depression. Things are going so well, in fact, that they own their own saloon and are able to hire a moll from Chicago (Jessica Chastain) to tend bar. Meanwhile, Shia LaBeouf, the runt of the pack, seeks to transform his family’s locally owned and run business into a full-fledged franchise whilst simultaneously courting a preacher’s daughter (Mia Wasikowska).
Things take a turn for the worse, however, when corrupt, dandified Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (gold-shitting Guy Pearce) arrives in town seeking to shakedown all bootlegging operations. True to his stubborn nature, Forrest refuses to be strong-armed and threatens the deputy in return, kicking off a war between the backwoods Bondurants and the big city lawman. Oh, and along the way, Gary Oldman turns up as a Tommy Gun-toting mobster.
The core story of Lawless is perfectly fine; considerably better crime epics have been based off of considerably less compelling stories. So why is Lawless only a good movie instead of a fantastic one? It would be easy to make Shia LaBeouf the scapegoat here; he’s hardly a moving target thanks to the backlash he’s received for starring in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Michael Bay’s godawful Transformers abortions. But truth be told, LaBeouf acquits himself nicely in the company of Pearce, Oldman, and Hardy. The initially wimpy, sniveling Jack Bondurant could have been a pathetic whiner in less capable hands, and yet, LaBeouf finds a way to make the character weak without being loathsome.
The rest of the cast is uniformly fantastic. Guy Pearce steals the movie by playing the antithesis of Elliot Ness. Decked out in expensive suits (complete with bow tie and leather riding gloves), Pearce sleazes his way through the entire movie, speaking in a gravelly high-pitched voice and utilizing highly affected movements. The special deputy behaves like a rival criminal, using intimidation, violence, and murder in order to force the Bondurants to capitulate to his will. Pearce seizes on the character and spends the entire movie chewing the scenery in a manner that isn’t entirely unwelcome. In contrast, Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, and Jason Clarke, expertly underplay their character, grounding the whole production and keeping it from spinning off into the stratosphere of camp.
Lawless isn’t light on violence, either. We’re treated to all of the obligatory blood and guts that goes along with the territory once the plot kicks into high gear. As Rakes and the Bondurants skirmish throughout the West Virginian countryside, there are plenty of gory beatings, shootouts, and murders, all expertly shot by Hillcoat, a director who is no stranger to capturing hyper-violence on celluloid.
No, if the film suffers from any major flaw, it’s that it is more self-important and grandiose than material of this sort has any right to be. Lawless repeatedly tries to hit you in the face with how important and special it is. Hillcoat and Cave have attempted to carve out a fable about an enterprising family who finds themselves hounded by a corrupt, oppressive government, with the ensuing struggle resulting in the birth of modern day America. Lawless strives to assume epic proportions by boasting a large cast of Oscar-nominated players, a meandering pace, and an overwhelming political subtext, but in the end, this is still a movie about a couple of backwoods bootleggers in an inconsequential town. Instead of actually being a milestone film, Lawless feels more like above average Oscar bait.
Ironically, if Hillcoat and Cave had striven to simply make a solid genre picture instead of an important Academy Awards pleaser, Lawless might have been a more memorable film. As it is we’re still left with a capably directed, brilliantly cast, decently written gangster picture. I just can’t shake the feeling that this movie still should have been better.