In this new work, Aussie director John Hillcoat returns to the genre where he first made his name seven years ago with The Proposition, and renews his collaboration with man-of-many-talents Nick Cave, who also penned the script for that film. Although not strictly set in the genre’s accepted time period, Lawless has all the markings of a western. While the film offers strong performances and a wonderful eye for detail and setting, it is the script which falters, leaving us with a good film that is still missing the final element to propel it to greatness.
Lawless tells the true story of the brothers Bondurant, three bootleggers from rural Virginia during the Prohibition era: Jack, the youngest (Shia LaBeouf), who is impressionable and still a bit wet behind the ears, and although this is more of an ensemble piece probably the lead character in the film; Howard, the oldest one (Jason Clarke), a survivor of World War I, and second in command; and Forrest (Tom Hardy), the brains of the outfit. Together they run a highly successful business in illegal moonshine (a distilled spirit). They bother nobody, and nobody bothers them, until Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (a scenery-chewing Guy Pearce) comes in from Chicago to lay down the law in Virginia, even if his brand of law is corrupt. The three Bondurants, however, will bow down to no one, and a confrontation is inevitable. Jack has an entrepreneurial spirit, and his actions cause a shift in the dynamic between the brothers, and eventually influence the final showdown with Rakes. Matters are further complicated by the two women in the brothers’ lives, the mysterious Maggie (Jessica Chastain), who brings a secret past with her from Chicago and slowly connects with Forrest, and Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), a young preacher’s daughter on whom Jack has a crush. And finally, there is a role to be played by Chicago gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), whom Jack idolizes.
As for thematic depth, Lawless doesn’t have much to offer: this is a genre pic all the way through, and what you see is what you get. But as such, it is thoroughly entertaining proof that you don’t always need heft to create something worthwhile, and that good old-fashioned storytelling goes a long way. Furthermore, Hillcoat and crew have managed to create a detailed and lived-in world in this film (also a strong point of The Proposition, by the way): the art direction, costumes and music (the latter also by Nick Cave, together with Warren Ellis) give the film a very authentic feel.
There are problems though: both women feel like little more than plot points and/or love interests, Wasikowska probably more than Chastain, because the latter’s character has a mysterious streak that makes her at least somewhat interesting and gives her more depth. Likewise, Oldman seems to be written into the script to provide Jack the opportunity to grow as a person (not that the veteran actor doesn’t manage to create a memorable character, though). But the core of the story is the changing dynamic between the three brothers, especially Jack and Forrest, and their battle against Pearce’s Rakes. And it is because of the work by LaBeouf, Hardy and Pearce that the film really becomes entertaining. LaBeouf is convincing in his character’s transformation from boy to man, and delivers his best work to date. Hardy and certainly Pearce lay it on thick, but within the framework of this film and given their larger-than-life characters, it works perfectly. The script is the weakest point, strictly following genre conventions and hiding hardly any surprises up its sleeve. One thing that must be said: it is at times brutally violent. This is not one for the squeamish. Fortunately, Cave sprinkles in some welcome comic relief here and there.
In all, Lawless is an enjoyable film that doesn’t further solidify Hillcoat’s reputation as an interesting director, but doesn’t tarnish it either. At the very least, it shows he knows how to handle the genre.