Lawless Review: Were The Cast and Crew On Moonshine?

Failing on the most fundamental levels of storytelling and filmmaking, this is a massive missed opportunity, which fails to exploit the obvious talent of the stellar cast and crew and potential of a rich story.

rating: 1

You know that a film has seriously missed the mark when in the climactic shoot out, you find yourself rooting for the evil, twisted villain. This is exactly how I felt while watching John Hillcoat€™s Lawless, his über bloody adaptation of this gangster-western project that spent more years in development hell than the prohibition era in which it is set raged on. Tom Hardy and Shia LaBeouf play the Bondurant brothers (Jason Clarke also plays the unnecessary €˜why-the-hell-didn€™t-they-write-him-out? third brother), infamous bootleggers of Franklin County, Virginia who take a stand when maniacal lawman Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce, sporting more facial prosthetics) comes to clean up the town. LeBeouf is the young tearaway who freezes when posed with pulling a trigger to take a man€™s life, while Hardy is the older, wiser bullet-to-the-brains brother. And while Rakes is busy shaking down tails, LaBeouf is busy trying to woo preacher€™s daughter Mia Wasikowska and Hardy cosies up with hottest barmaid in the West Jessica Chastain. With such a stellar cast and an acclaimed director and writer working on a celebrated novel one might wonder how Lawless fails to at least be something competent. However, the end result is something that is neither here nor there. Moments of extreme violence are diluted by schmaltzy scenes and unsuited sentimentality. Hillcoat has shown in previous films he is very good at establishing a sense of place and a tone, and while at times he manages it here, the film then seems to have been hijacked by Hollywood and injected with colour and fluff. It€™s not a cohesive film; there€™s an awful montage in the middle, slow motion shots and non-diegetic music which is often jarring and feels alien. The story itself is by no means original and the prohibition era, either in the backwaters of America or in the gangster ridden cities, has certainly been exploited to the full over the years by Hollywood. However, given how infamous the Bondurant boys were, I felt this story had a more than valid place in cinema. The inclusion of the third brother seemed like as silly as Scorsese€™s decision to drop the third brother in Raging Bull was intelligent. But this aside there still seemed to be the potential for an East of Eden/ Raging Bull relationship between Hardy and LeBeouf. It even has elements of Michael and Vito from the Godfather €“ the classic sins of the father washing onto the sun despite their disparate characters and personalities. And yet despite this potential, little time is spent on the relationship of the brothers and rather on their separate romances, which are bland at best, and the on-going moonshine smuggling, which frankly is dry without characters to care about getting caught. Of all the cast, only Guy Pearce comes away unscathed. His ruthless, twisted, disfigured lawman, happy to fight fire with nuclear warfare is the highlight of the film. He is genuinely menacing, creepy and constantly unsettling. Tom Hardy also puts in a respectable performance. Carrying the pre-Bane bulk without the muscle definition, he mumbles, grunts and moans his way through most of the film, but actually manages to make more sense than most of the cast and more importantly conveys a sense of emotion €“ humorous at times, terrifying at others €“ and character sadly lacking from the rest. No one more so than Gary Oldman, who barely has five minutes of screen time, playing a character that is entirely pointless to the film. While The Dark Knight Rises was a film where both €“ along with the rest of that cast €“ showcased their considerable talents, this was a film where Hardy and Oldman seemed to make the best of a bad script, but try as they might could not turn mutton into Lamb. Shia LeBeouf is completely in over his head here, posed with the task of carrying the film. His character journey is that of the innocent young man trying to aid his brother without being corrupted but slowly being sucked into the glitz and glamor of the gangster scene. LeBeouf lacks the subtleties to convince he is this character and consequently either seems of the periphery of scenes or is screaming and shouting his way into them. He is not good enough to carry a movie of this style. If there are positives to the piece then they are in the aesthetic. Hillcoat does create a dusty, dirty, gritty backwater America, seeped in prohibition turmoil which is bloody and brutal. In this respect it does have a Peckinpah-esque feel with scenes of violence thick and fast and soaked with blood and gore. However, even this is deeply flawed due to the lack of any real connection with the characters. A prime example is a scene where Pearce€™s character gives La Beouf the thrashing of his life. While it is the intention we feel sympathy for LaBeouf and hatred for Pearce, the scene has no real effect other than to cause one to grimace at the brutality. If anything, here, just like at the end, I was with Pearce with every kick he inflicted on LeBeouf. It should also be noted that LaBeouf€™s bruises and scars last for all of five minutes of screen time, then he€™s back to his pretty boy best. Remember Michael€™s jaw staying disfigured for the rest of Godfather part one? Remember Jake€™s nose staying cut throughout Chinatown? These movies are remembered and regarded as classics; and these details are part of that reason. A thousand things wrong and but a few right, Lawless is a bloodier mess than most of the characters find themselves in at one point of the film or another. Failing on the most fundamental levels of storytelling and filmmaking, this is a massive missed opportunity, which fails to exploit the obvious talent of the stellar cast and crew and potential of a rich story. Lawless is released in UK cinemas from today.

Frustratingly argumentative writer, eater, reader and fanatical about film ‘n’ food and all things fundamentally flawed. I have been a member of the WhatCulture family since it was known as Obsessed with Film way back in the bygone year of 2010. I review films, festivals, launch events, award ceremonies and conduct interviews with members of the ‘biz’. Follow me @FilmnFoodFan In 2011 I launched the restaurant and food criticism section. I now review restaurants alongside film and the greatest rarity – the food ‘n’ film crossover. Let your imaginations run wild as you mull on what that might look like!