By Simon Miraudo
October 11, 2012
(Republished February 18, 2013)
John Hillcoat's Lawless is so low-key it's practically infrasonic. Utterly untroubled by any expectation to entertain - or even mildly engage - the audience, Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave take a stroll through 1930s Virginia with the enthusiasm of beleaguered berry-pickers rather than raucous bootleggers. That is, until the remarkably silly conclusion in which Guy Pearce's villainous mobster Charley Rakes goes full-Cagney and takes the feature out in a too-late and out-of-place blaze of glory. His antagonist is about as imposing as Rob Sitch's King Javier from Kath and Kimderella, with a worse haircut to boot.
The film concerns the legendary Bondurant brothers, who defied death at every turn while peddling booze during the Prohibition. Few true tales are of such a high-grade, and Hillcoat and Cave use it as the framework for what is ostensibly a pulpy gangster flick. Still, there's an ongoing sense of airs throughout. They fused existentialism and old-west thrills fantastically in The Proposition, yet here their balancing act has produced a largely dull final product. With Boardwalk Empire similarly inspiring yawns, you have to wonder why moonshiners are a mostly uninteresting bunch on screen. Alcohol: fun to drink, not so fun to watch.
The flat cinematography (by DOP Benoit Delhomme) and empty-vessel character work in the script is certainly responsible for the tedium too, though the actors that populate the frame mostly do their best. Tom Hardy is a comic delight as big brother Bondurant, Forrest; he speaks softly and beats-up brutally. However, if the authentic parlance of the times weren't already keeping avid listeners on their toes, Hardy's garbled dialogue will certainly leave most scratching their heads in confusion. For much of the movie, I wondered which nation would be submitting Lawless as their entry in the Best Foreign Language category at the Oscars.
Shia LaBeouf gives a career best turn as Jack, the youngest Bondurant and eventual grandfather of Mark, author of source book The Wettest County in the World. Desperate to emulate big bros Forrest and the perpetually drunk Howard (Jason Clarke), he strives to refine their production process, sell to big-time gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), and court the preacher's daughter, Bertha (Mia Wasikowska). All the while, the preening Charley Rakes - with the police under his thumb - viciously takes out anyone refusing to pay him for the pleasure of letting them carry on their illegal activities. The seemingly unkillable Forrest, who does not take kindly to these kinds of threats, and Jack, newly decked out in fine threads and with confidence up the wazoo, pledge to stand their ground.
Jessica Chastain plays a former Chicago dancer turned Bondurant barmaid, following up a phenomenal 2011 with perhaps the most underwritten role in her brief oeuvre. It's not her fault, of course, but the number of emotional cart-wheels her character is expected to make in so few scenes is laughable. Maybe not as laughable as Pearce's eyebrow-less, hair-parted, glove-wearing Charley Rakes; a collection of affectations seemingly culled from Anton Chigurh, the Wicked Witch of the West, and Nosferatu. When you're performance makes Gary Oldman seem restrained by comparison, it's time to turn it down a notch.
Lawless arrives on DVD and Blu-ray February 20, 2013.