“Lawless” tries very hard to be a great gangster movie, and in certain aspects it succeeds. The elements are present, but the focus is often lacking. Like Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” we see a glimpse of our protagonists riding high and reveling in the excesses their newfound wealth has brought them (paired with an upbeat narration), but it’s too short lived and contradictory to the tension-filled mood that permeates the rest of the film. Paralleling the transformation of Michael Corleone in “The Godfather,” we witness a similar metamorphosis in Shia LaBeouf’s young protagonist, but the catalyst isn’t as convincing and the outcome fails to be revolutionary. While the stark violence and intriguing characters have their appeal (and Guy Pearce’s unhinged performance will likely turn some heads), the standard revenge-driven plot fails to complement the more singular facets of the film.
In Prohibition-era Virginia, the three Bondurant brothers make their living bootlegging moonshine. Stern, uncompromising Forrest (Tom Hardy) is their leader, while rugged drunkard Howard (Jason Clarke) assumes second-in-command duties. Young, naïve Jack (Shia LaBeouf) does the driving, though he desperately wants to increase his standing and responsibilities amongst his brothers. As the years go by, the criminal climate changes, bringing a different breed of police officer from the cities to combat the vicious gangsters that control the trade. When corrupt special deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) arrives in Virginia with the intention of cutting himself in on the Bondurant’s business, a violent war begins that will find Jack forced to take charge in order to defend all that he holds dear.
In its attempt to examine a darker, more brutally realistic take on the setting seen in “Public Enemies” or “The Untouchables,” director John Hillcoat’s latest, graphically bloody film forgets to develop a memorable story. It dismisses the idealism, costume extravagance, the glamor, and magniloquence often visualized in prohibition-era, cops-and-robbers styled gangster flicks, instead dwelling on the filth (here, it’s the authorities that represent evil). Using elements of neo-Westerns, there’s a gruffness and toughness about the characters and sets, with a preoccupation on the look and feel – peeling paint, tattered garbs, constant smoking, spitting, wafting dust and dirt; dull colors abound and general ugliness drenches this environment. Even the shooting of a Thompson submachine gun stresses a noticeable ricketiness or uncontrollability. A distinct level of grotesquerie is added to every event.
The monstrousness spills over most disturbingly into the violence and bloodshed, hiding behind the notion of realism. The fragility of the two female leads is at times appropriate and at others disproportionately clashing with the subject matter, making not only their inclusion but also the romances that follow seem both inaccurate and as if they belong to a different movie. The villain too exhibits an atrociousness that crosses aberrance with viciousness, relying on cruel actions, odd mannerisms, an accent, and a peculiar laugh to craft a distinguishing role. Like the antagonists in “Hanna,” the characters are written to monopolize on weirdness for uniqueness (as opposed to the more routine scarred face, signature weapon, or missing limb). Nonetheless, Pearce will likely be the most talked about aspect of “Lawless.”
– The Massie Twins (GoneWithTheTwins.com)