Thursday, August 30, 2012

A Reel Review: LAWLESS

The balance between a movie’s screenplay and direction is much like the bonding between brick and mortar; if one element is faulty, the walls will simply come crumbling down. Enter John Hillcoat’s LAWLESS; his unbalanced look at the bootlegging business during the (goddamn) Prohibition years.
The Bondurant bothers, Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke), and the youngest, Jack (Shia LaBeouf) are at the heart of the bootlegging business in the hills of backwater Virginia. When Special Deputy Rakes (Guy Pearce) appears looking for a handout, Forrest sticks to his principles and refuses to pay the shakedown, which results in a bloody war between the brothers and Rakes. Meanwhile, Forrest encounters romance with city-transplant Maggie (Jessica Chastain), Jack courts the preacher’s daughter Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), just when big-time Chicago gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) appears in town.

Based on a true story and remarkably brought to life by Hillcoat’s outstanding and beautiful direction, LAWLESS is at its strongest when it concentrates on the heroes of the story; the brothers. The film starts off strongly with a great family dynamic with the older brother acting as the patriarch, the middle brother a screwup, and the youngest trying to be older than he actually is. When the outside world begins to threaten their way of life, the brothers play off each other and fight against the odds and that is when LAWLESS it at its strongest and most compelling.
The film eventually shifts focus over to Jack, and becomes his coming-of-age story. While that is a natural progression for the film, it is Jack’s courting of the preacher’s daughter where things grind to a halt. The romantic storyline does not mesh well with the rest of the goings-on, and has little to no consequence in the grand scheme of things by movie’s end. It is intrusive and a massive momentum-killer, and worst of all, takes attention away from the brothers. The screenplay, adapted by Nick Cave, is the fatal flaw in LAWLESS; with so much time taken away from what should have been the centerpiece (the brothers and their plight), there is little reason to care about anything.

John Hillcoat’s direction has, however created a beautiful looking film. With stunning cinematography and remarkable set design, the back-country world of 1930’s Virginia is a marvel to look at. The film is also backed by an outstanding and moving soundtrack right out of the OH BROTHER WHERE ART THOU universe.
Hillcoat also directs some incredible performances out his ensemble cast. Everyone pulls off their southern drawls very well while vanishing into their characters. Tom Hardy and Guy Pearce are elemental forces in the film, and Shia LaBeouf turns in his best performance ever. Jessica Chastain is lovely and convincing as always, and Gary Oldman is spectacular as the Chicago gangster, even though he is criminally under-used (he appears for a grand total of five minutes).

The finale tries to be an explosive one but ultimately feels empty as there is not much to get invested in at that point; there just isn’t very much to bring conclusion to. It ultimately makes for a frustrating watch; the acting and directing is superb, but that gets overshadowed by a bloated and clumsy script.


  1. Tom Hardy is the man in this flick but the one who really runs away with it all is Guy Pearce who has never ever been as vicious as he is here. Everybody else here is great too, but he’s the one who steals the show, in my opinion. Nice review Alan.

  2. Agree, and if the writing was a little better Pearce could have rivaled Ledger's Joker.


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