There’s a well-known saying that there are only seven stories in fiction and everything else are just variations on them. I think the same is true for non-fiction, as most “based on a true story” movies are the same. For good guys, it’s all about them overcoming the hardships of their upbringings and making a name for themselves. For bad guys, it’s about their rise to the top, and then their inevitable fall back down. Lawless is the latter, and while the “fall back down” doesn’t hit the same lows as most others do, the film is still nothing we haven’t seen before.
Based on the novel The Wettest County in the World, Lawless is the true story of the three Bondurant brothers – Jack, Forrest, and Howard – who made a living bootlegging moonshine in prohibition-era Franklin County, Virginia. Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, and Jason Clarke play the brothers, who are considered by the townsfolk to be invincible. That being said, the brothers are low-level criminals, and Jack looks up to upper-level criminal Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) as something of an idol.
The brothers have a good relationship with the law until special deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) comes in from Chicago to put an end to moonshine and the brothers. But the Bundurants aren’t looking to go gentle into that good night, and plan to put a stop to anyone who gets in their way. Many people get in their way though, so blood gets spilled, necks get broken, and jaws get brass-knuckled.
Lawless is a very good film, but falls short of being great. John Hillcoat, working with a script by Nick Cave, has crafted a fun, bloody, piece of entertainment, but it never connects in a way that makes an impact. While most of the polish is good, the film’s problems lie under the hood. Nick Cave’s script is perfectly serviceable and filled with great dialogue, but is filled with pointless scenes and characters that just take up time.
Case in point, Gary Oldman is in this film for five minutes. He appears in the beginning to wink at Shia LaBeouf, appears later to pull a gun on him, and then disappears. His character could’ve been cut out completely and hardly made a difference. While he serves as a role model to Jack, that’s for one scene.
Also problematic is the disappearances of characters throughout the film. Tom Hardy commands the screen for the first half of the movie, and then just sits in his room until it’s time for the final shootout. Same for Jessica Chastain, who is a nonentity in this movie. Like Gary Oldman, her character could have been cut out entirely and the film wouldn’t have changed.
But I’m not all negative with the film, as my four-star rating indicates. The cast, regardless of how their characters are handled, are all fantastic. Tom Hardy continues his trend of terrifying buff guys playing Forrest, who is known for his inability to die. Seriously, this is a guy that could have an anvil dropped on his head and shake it off. Jason Clarke is good as Howard, but his role is very small. The main character is Shia LaBeouf, who I haven’t always been the biggest fan of. Thankfully, now that he’s out of the Transformers franchise he seems to be picking good film roles and pulls off a good performance here.
The selling point of this movie is Guy Pearce, who plays the villain as a cross between Droopy Dog and Buffalo Bill. It’s never said outright just what’s going on with his character, but the movie tries very hard for you to understand is that he is a creepy psycho, and Pearce sells it. This isn’t a mustache-twirling performance, but it easily could be. Pearce straddles the line between cartoonish and unnerving and delivers some of the best work of his career.
So overall, Lawless is definitely worth seeing, and is only disappointing because of the potential for something much better. Though the film goes pretty dark, it’s mostly lighthearted and frequently funny. Go in with leveled expectations and you’ll enjoy yourself for two hours. At this point in a mostly disappointing year of movies, you can’t ask for more than that.
Lawless is out now in the US and on September 7th in the UK.
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