Gangsters are slowly but surely returning to prominence and if the first film, Lawless, in the trend is anything to go off of the future looks bright. Sure the film suffers from an overtly long runtime and a leading man not able to hold his own but that’s not enough to tinge the bloodshed, the strong script, and the fun that can be had in this gangster opus.
The Bondurant brothers are bootleggers during Prohibition. Youngest brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf) tries to be as bad as his elder brothers but can’t seem to catch a break. As gangsters and cops, led by Agent Rakes (Guy Pearce) start trying to get a piece of the Bondurant’s actions the town starts to experience the violence and bloodshed that bootlegging can perpetuate.
Director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave have the world of the gangster in their veins as evidenced by their prior pairing The Proposition. While the world of Lawless isn’t as gritty as their previous efforts it’s still violent and compelling. Scenes in this film are on par with Scorsese’s greatest hits including a pretty gruesome ending for one of the main characters involving a knife that needs to be seen. The world of the bootlegger has been captured in film and television before but the level of acting and the insulated nature of the story makes this a compelling tale, probably due to the fact that the source material (The Wettest County in the World) is already so well-done. The way the Bondurant’s organized and work within their community is both a blessing and a curse.
The acting in this alleviates the flaws of the film. Tom Hardy continues to dominate both physically and emotionally in his roles. While Forrest is sadly a reduced role Hardy conveys so much emotion via grunts, or mumbling. If you think he failed in Dark Knight Rises he’ll redeem himself with Lawless. His chemistry and relationship with Jessica Chastain as Maggie is worthy of a film of its own and it’s sad that the main love story that carries the film is so weak because you want to see Hardy and Chastain. Jason Clarke is also astounding as war veteran brother Howard. He doesn’t have much back-story but knowing he survived the war gives his actions in the film an air of melancholy. Our villains, played by Gary Oldman and Guy Pearce, are deliciously hammy. Oldman is only in the film a few minutes but damn does he show why he always played an amazing villain! Pearce’s character is so ridiculous that he can only work in this film. He’s over-the-top psychotic and yet he’s given such complexity that you can infer through watching the film.
The main issue with Lawless overall is star Shia LaBeouf. He’s not bad, he’s just not nearly as skilled an actor as his supporting cast and it shows. LaBeouf can’t convey his emotions with a look like Hardy that doesn’t look like he’s whimpering. When Jack finally decides to take things into his own hands it feels like a child not getting his toy, and it doesn’t help that he takes to screaming to convey anger and sadness indiscriminately. His relationship with preacher’s daughter Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) doesn’t have the heat or chemistry as Chastain and Hardy’s does and several major action pieces in the film are the result of Jack’s stupidity. The other characters are constantly telling Jack not to do things and yet he does them to propel the plot along.
As mentioned, it’s not nearly as good as The Proposition but it’s still a good film. If you can get over LaBeouf’s sub-par acting the rest of the actors, particularly Hardy, Chastain and Pearce are amazing!