Review: Lawless (2012)

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Cast: Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Guy Pearce
Director: John Hillcoat
Country: USA
Genre: Crime | Drama | Western
Official Trailer: Here


Inevitably comparable to its director’s 2005 hit The Proposition—as much for its implementation and subsequent subversion of genre conventions as for the shared screenwriter between the two—Lawless’ basis in the real-life story of the Bondurant boys, a trio of bootlegging brothers in 1930s Virginia, renders it considerably more enslaved to the dictates of history than that earlier film. Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, and Jason Clarke are the three: respectively the aspirational youngster, brooding and allegedly immortal leader, and infamously violent elder. Their gradual installation of an empire is the concern of Nick Cave’s script, which traces their rise from a small time band of brigands to the state’s most lucrative illegal enterprise.

The predominant issue, the one which the film never manages to circumvent, is its lack of thematic intrigue: both genres, the two great staples of American cinema, revel in the murky morality of a society in crisis, an indulgence Lawless never seems terribly interested in.

Lawless may concern itself with the life and times of gangsters on the peripheries of society, but Hillcoat’s expert aesthetic leaves no doubt that this is as much western epic as gangster picture, as much indebted to The Searchers (a film it openly references) as to Scarface. The predominant issue, the one which the film never manages to circumvent, is its lack of thematic intrigue: both genres, the two great staples of American cinema, revel in the murky morality of a society in crisis, an indulgence Lawless never seems terribly interested in. Perhaps inextricably implicit in this shortcoming is the specific source “The Wettest County in the World”, penned by a grandson of one of the brothers, a familial attachment which seems to paint Lawless in uncomfortably adulatory tones. The tagline, even—“When the law became corrupt, outlaws became heroes”—demonstrates the irksome elevation of this brigand to the stature of workaday folk icons.

It might seem petulant to criticise Lawless for something it never attempts to do, yet it’s precisely in this inaction that its more eminent flaws are made manifest. To moralise in a sense the less excusable actions of the Bondurant boys, we meet the comically antagonistic adversary in Guy Pearce’s Charlie Rakes, a special agent assigned to clean up the thriving bootlegging business. For the brothers to be the heroes, there must be a recognisable villain we seek to see destroyed, a role nobody could possibly mistake Pearce as. His hair greasily slicked back, his eyebrows reduced to pale whisps (he looks not unlike the Mystery Man of Lost Highway), his clothes impeccably tailored, his voice adorned in aloof resentment, he exudes a villainy that would seem excessive in a Nazi exploitation film. It’s indicative of just how hard a sell the Bondurant brothers are as relatable protagonists that their merits need highlighting by contrast with so odious a caricature.

…though not a bad work, Lawless has neither the thematic complexity nor character depth to elevate it beyond the realms of mediocrity, even its story—arguably its strongest suit—heftily flawed, no more so than in the painfully ill-advised epilogue.

Pearce’s is not the only character whose presence is superfluous to the construction of an interesting film. Mia Wasikowska’s, too, is needless, her role as little more than a cursory love interest for LaBeouf wasting the charm she nonetheless brings to the role. Jessica Chastain is at least is put to better use as Hardy’s ferociously independent counterpart, the unsurprising alacrity she brings to her role instrumental in the creation of the film’s sole great sequence. Yet even this too is undermined in another of Lawless’ niggling indulgences, namely the construction of Hardy’s character as a quasi-comic one. He heaves about the frame with a graceless lumber, his many mumbled, off-screen one-liners suggestive of an even greater deal of additional dialogue recording than The Dark Knight Rises.

It’s not that Hardy isn’t good in the role—he is, his physicality well suited, his stoic mannerisms just as much so—it’s just that the role itself doesn’t amount to much. Nor, indeed, does the film which contains it: though not a bad work, Lawless has neither the thematic complexity nor character depth to elevate it beyond the realms of mediocrity, even its story—arguably its strongest suit—heftily flawed, no more so than in the painfully ill-advised epilogue. It’s particularly disappointing to see actors as dynamic and interesting as Hardy, as Chastain, as Wasikowsa, even as LaBeouf—who more than pulls his weight here—put to such limited use. For cast and crew both, this is sub-par material, a failure to deliver on the lucrative promise so fine an assemblage of talent suggests.

[notification type=”star”]54/100 ~ MEDIOCRE. For cast and crew both, Lawless is sub-par material, a failure to deliver on the lucrative promise so fine an assemblage of talent suggests. [/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.