“Lawless” is one of those movies that you want to be great, and that it falls short of greatness might give it more grief than it deserves. The story meanders a little too much and it has more characters than it needs to deal with, but it still manages to hold your attention in spite of its flaws. The cast is perfectly chosen, it brings director John Hillcoat and musician/screenwriter Nick Cave back together for the first time since their triumphant collaboration on “The Proposition,” and it has a strong independent movie sensibility that is thankfully uncompromising in what it intends to show us.
The movie is based on the historical novel “The Wettest County in the World” written by Matt Bondurant, the grandson of one of the main characters. In Prohibition-era Franklin County, Virginia, brothers Jack (Shia LaBeouf), Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard Bondurant (Jason Clarke) have their own bootlegging business which produces some of the finest moonshine anyone could ever hope to drink. Despite the illegal nature of what they do, local law enforcement is happy to stay out of their way as long as they get some free samples to enjoy for themselves.
Things change however when a new deputy named Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) comes to town and demands a significant cut of the brothers’ profits. Forrest, the toughest of the trio, makes clear that neither he nor his brothers have any intention of sharing any money with Charlie in light of his thinly veiled threats. This leads to a conflict between Charlie and the brothers that erupts in some seriously brutal moments of violence designed to leave very nasty and lasting marks.
From the start, “Lawless” shows that killing will be an unavoidable part of these brothers’ lives. The opening scene takes this trio back to when they were kids, and Jack is dared by Forrest and Howard to shoot and kill a pig. Jack however can’t bring himself to do it, and this haunts his actions throughout the rest of the movie. The world these characters inhabit has the appearance of law and order but never the practice of it, and while Jack is not one to rush to violence, it becomes apparent to the audience that he will eventually have to resort to it regardless of whether he wants to or not. When bootlegging is involved, peaceful negotiations are not really seen as an option.
Shia LaBeouf has gotten a lot of mud flung at him the last few years for appearing in those “Transformers” movies and the last “Indiana Jones” film which many seem to seriously despise (I don’t). But in “Lawless” he gives one of his best and most powerful performances to date as Jack, a cocky young man who soon finds that he cannot avoid the inevitable. The strength of his acting really shows in the moments where he doesn’t say a single word; his face clearly expresses the conflicts he wishes to overcome in any other way than shooting off bullets at his foes.
It’s been a great summer for Tom Hardy. On top of his masterful turn as Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises,” he gives another excellent performance here as Forrest. Now Forrest spends a lot of the time speaking in grunts and a monotone voice, but we quickly learn that he doesn’t have to speak up when it comes to making good on his threats. Seeing what he can do with a pair of brass knuckles gives us some of the most viscerally painful moments you will witness in any 2012 movie. As with Bane, Hardy manages to convey so much with his eyes that you don’t ever doubt how sincere his character is defending what he has built up.
Now Guy Pearce has had a tremendously busy year with this, “Prometheus” and “Lockout,” but his performance as Deputy Charley Rake is his best in a long time. Pearce doesn’t fail in giving us one of the sickest villains I’ve seen movies; a man so obsessed with his own cleanliness as he is with dispensing his morbidly twisted sense of justice. He succeeds in making this deputy such a despicable human being that you will become impatient in waiting to see his opponents rub his face in the dirt just so you can watch him squirm.
As Howard, Jason Clarke gives the most underrated performance in “Lawless.” He neither overplays nor underplays his role, and his portrayal feels right in everything he does. It’s one of those performances where an actor just becomes a character without us realizing it, and Howard acts as the balance this trio of brothers needs when things get really rough.
It’s also great to see another “Dark Knight Rises” alumnus here as well with Gary Oldman playing ruthless crime boss Floyd Banner. Even though he’s become better known these days for playing conflicted good guys, Oldman still knows how to portray a vicious gangster like few others do.
When it comes to the actresses of “Lawless,” they are excellent even though their roles feel underdeveloped. Jessica Chastain continues to amaze as Maggie Beauford, a rough and tumble lady from the city of Chicago who ends up working for the three brothers at their restaurant. After seeing Chastain portray such heavenly-seeming people in movies like “The Tree of Life,” it’s cool to see her playing a tough yet vulnerable character with a history she’d rather not talk about.
Mia Wasikowska’s role as Bertha Minnix, daughter of a deeply religious man, is even more underdeveloped as she seems to exist solely as a love interest for Jack. She doesn’t get much to do here other than stare into LaBeouf’s eyes and flirt with him, but Wasikowska does have a wonderfully serene presence about her that is impossible to ignore.
Nick Cave’s screenplay sets a lot of characters loose, and he never quite knows when to reign them all in. “Lawless” meanders as a result, and I found myself getting restless as certain parts of the story seemed to go on much longer than they needed to. Still, Cave’s fascination with the dark side of humanity is strangely alluring, and he never tries to take the easy way out with these characters which is commendable. He also provides (along with Warren Ellis) a haunting film score which reminds us of what a brilliantly original musical artist he remains, and it matches nicely with Benoît Delhomme’s stark cinematography.
“Lawless” is one of those movies that you want to be better than it is, but while it is flawed there is still much to admire and recommend about it. The acting alone is enough of a reason to check this movie out, and its uncompromising look at the dark side of humanity is notable in time when Hollywood studios seem resolute in watering movies down. Even if it misses its chance at greatness, “Lawless” is not a film that should be easily dismissed.