Lawless formerly titled the wettest county in the world is based sees John Hillcoat present this tale of the Bootlegging Bondurant Brothers. The brothers are Jack (Shia LaBeouf), Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke). The elder two, Forrest and Howard, run a small successful outfit, selling Moonshine to friends and the local police. Everything runs smoothly until younger brother Jack gets ambitious and Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) arrives to tidy up Depression-era Franklin County, Virginia.
Hillcoat has made a name for himself as a director of western tinged cinema that presents a strong and uncompromising image of the old west, whether it is transposed to Australia or a post-apocalyptic vista. Lawless marks something of a thematic divergence in that it takes place in more of an optimistic, or at the very least, a less pessimistic world. Directors should be encouraged to stray out of their comfort zone. Sadly, the success of this Weinstein distributed ensemble piece is minimal.
The reason for this is the problematic tonal shifts. Lawless lurches from a ‘good old boys’ crime caper, which playfully incorporates love interests and a jokey outlook, to moments of shocking extreme violence. Both may present the inherent theme of masculinity, front and centre, but that isn’t the issue it’s a matter of presentation. The light-hearted side builds up the naiveté and bone headed masculinity of the brothers through the framing of a coming of an age romp. On the other side, bloody violence is introduced via torture and brutal intimidation. This conflict brings an inconsistency that favours the ‘Bondurant fairy tale’ over the true interest of the story. That comes through the wide-eyed naiveté of the youngest brother as demonstrated through the superfluous narration and hopeless epilogue.
This unevenness doesn’t claim the film; Lawless is fun in short bursts. These short bursts are exclusive to the scenes that feature Tom Hardy and Guy Pearce, who both put in glorious scenery-chewing performances. Their accents may be all over the place, but the fun they have with the characters is instantly obvious. Guy Pearce with his slicked back hair and shaved eyebrows is terrifying with this eccentricity, providing another example as to why actors love playing the bad guy. Hardy plays Forrest as an incredibly violent but socially awkward man, his grunts and stiff body language brings constant value for money. If only his character wasn’t imbued with indestructibility that takes the light-heartedness and stretches the boundaries of plausibility.
With the masculinity of the Bondurant fairy tale begging questions of the script, similar questions are brought about with much of the supporting cast. Gary Oldman appears briefly as a gangster, and all he has to do is look cool wielding a tommy gun, the two love interests in Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain have even less to do. LaBeouf, who is effectively the lead, shows he can do a little more than run away from explosions, even if he plays the same idiotic character is typecast as.
Fun in quick short bursts, John Hillcoat and Nick Cave’s third collaboration suffers from multiple maladies, of which the score counts high, but the less said about the deeply anachronistic bluegrass score by Warren Ellis and Nick Cave the better. Otherwise, putting the script under any degree of scrutiny makes cracks appear in plausibility, motivation and an uneasiness of narrative cohesion all of which are impossible to ignore. While momentarily enjoyable as a B-Movie, a film from a director and cast with such profound talents results in Lawless being a disappointment.