It is always interesting to find an independent film that has a knockout cast.
Actors and actresses are usually prima-donnas when it comes to their paycheck, and when they’re not, then their agents will try to find as many high-paying, studio projects as they can. It’s the reason that Chris Hemsworth is able to pay his rent; he looks great on a lunch box. Studio movies want good faces, well known rising stars to front their future franchises.
So when you get Shia LeBeouf, everyone’s favorite “Bane” Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain (perhaps the most successful actress of 2011), and seasoned veterans such as Gary Oldman and Guy Pearce, everyone is ready to buckle down and start watching for Oscar potential. A cast like that in an indie this usually means one of two things: 1) There is a great, young director that everyone is wanting to work with, or 2) The story and script are dynamite.
After watching the film, I realize that it was neither of these things that got this super-troop together. There is nothing special about how this movie was made, nor was the script anything brilliant or groundbreaking. It was the gritty nature of the violence, combined with the subject matter of a Southern bootleggers’ paradise that really gets one drawn into the story, but as a viewer, once you move passed the venir of these two elements, ‘Lawless’ is fairly empty, and honestly, a bit boring.
Like the non-fiction novel ‘The Wettest County in the World’, this film centers around the Bondurant family, a rag tag group of brothers who ran moonshine during Prohibition in Virginia. The film takes the audience to a world of organized crime that exists outside of the city, but in the backwoods country of the United States. Jack Bondurant (LeBeouf), is the narrator and central character to the film, but let me tell you right now, he is not the hero of this deep-South mythology. No, Jack is only the catalyst for conflict, the ingredient that causes everything to go awry. Even when Jack tries to help, he makes things worse, and even when he makes things better, it is eventually him that takes the family down an even worse road. Jack plays the damsel in distress, the younger brother that is constantly being bailed out. He is our protagonist, but he is not our hero.
The real Achilles of this Illiad is Forrest Bondurant (played wonderfully by Tom Hardy), who is simultaneously the the matriarch and patriarch of this little domestic disaster. He is the problem solver, the provider, the house keeper, as well as the seemingly invincible older brother. Big and brass-knuckled, the only thing more intimidating about Forrest’s stature is his stubborn demeanor. Although Jack is the man that we follow through this story, most of the conflict must be endured and resolved by the older Forrest. It is the relationship of these two brothers that makes our story tick.
Oh, and then there’s Howard Bondurant, but like Jack, he is either not where he needs to be, which once almost costs Forrest his neck (literally), or he is where he shouldn’t be. I almost forgot about Howard; this is most likely due to the fact that he is totally irrelevant, but we’ll get to that later.
The moonshine business is treating the Bondurants well, until we meet our obvious villain. Just taking one look at Guy Pearce’s haircut in this film, we realize that he is going to be trouble. Deputy Charlie Rakes (Pearce) rolls into town, and tells everyone who is running liquor that they need to pay up, or Rakes will shut them down one by one. Driven by pride, big, muscular, macho pride, Forrest refuses, saying that no one will push the Bondurants around.
After this decision is made, what ensues are dozens of instances of violent torture and acts of intimidation on both sides.
I have to level with you, the movie critic in me can’t let this slip by. What I think is incredibly interesting about the characters in this film is the writer and director are trying to convince us that Pearce is a bad man, and the Bondurants are good men. But this is the reality; Rakes is corrupt, but the Bondurants are criminals, and they have their own fair share of moral lapses as well. I just don’t feel that even as much as director John Hillcoat is trying to convince me of it, I don’t see some of the Bondurants’ acts of malicious violence as justifiable.
Also, if you are going to skew it to convince me that these men are good in nature, then you must show me real acts of humanity where I can decide whether or not I want to stick it out with these guys.The truth is that Forrest never really shows that he loves his family, and neither does Jack or Howard. Everyone is really out for themselves, and it leads the viewer to not have much stake in any of them at all. Even when Chastain’s character becomes vulnerable and loving in gratitude for Forrest, Forrest doesn’t know how to respond. He is seemingly heartless as a character, and only his actions of vengeance and anger are supposed to prove otherwise? I’m not buying it.
Like most of my reviews, I don’t want to give anything that will stop you from seeing the movie, but I do want to give you a clear picture of why I feel the way I do about this movie. I was really trying to stick with this one, very willing to grind it out until the very end, but I must tell you, the final climax of ‘Lawless’ is just dreadful. A shootout scene that is two parts frustrating and one part unbelievable. All I’m going to say is this; if you are going to bring out every character in the film for one final showdown, you need to make it worth, and you need to make these characters active participants in the conflict, not simply observers who are there to provide setting and symbolically historical context. Also, if you’re going to prove to me that this group of brothers is really in this together, then show me that they will at least defend each other, rather than just watch as their world falls apart.
I must say, though, that the performances are very good, and there are many things about ‘Lawless’ that are done well. There are great moments of dialogue and also very intimiate moments of honesty within certain characters. But as a director, Hillcoat chooses to ignore the best performances of the film and the most complex characters, and instead decides to focus on throat slitting, strangulation, and the dismemberment of humanity, and this is the fatal flaw of ‘Lawless.’
Also… Give me more Gary Oldman! His character was by far the most interesting in the entire movie, and we barely see him. I want a sequel to be titled ‘Lawless 2: The Story of Floyd Banner’ just so I can get more of his sinister gangster smirk.
My Note: ‘Lawless’ is all about the violence and not about much else.
My Grade: C