Review: Lawless

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Lawless, a not-so-great movie, is a production designer’s wet dream. Therefore, the first named in this review will be Chris Kennedy, who recreated prohibition-era Appalachia with such precision–the advertising signs, the cars, the wooden structures, the stills–that it was a marvel to take in. I also give great props to costume designer Margot Wilson and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme, who captures some beautiful scenes, such as a dress burning, a fallen man in a snow squall, a country woman hoisting a case of hooch onto her shoulder as if it were a sack of flour, a showdown on a covered bridge, and a naked Jessica Chastain entering a bedroom like a panther.

I don’t give a lot of credit to director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave, because the story of Lawless is overwhelmed by the look of the picture. I was more interested in a tin sign advertising grape soda hanging on the wall of a general store than I was in the goings-on, which concerns a war between a bootlegging family and the corrupt deputy who tries to bring them to justice.

The Bondurant brothers fancy themselves indestructible. Howard (Jason Clarke), who seems to not be playing with a full deck, was the only survivor of a platoon in World War I. Forrest (Tom Hardy), the taciturn ringleader, caught Spanish flu but survived. Younger brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf), the runt of the litter, does not take full part in the enterprise, lacking the toughness of his brothers. He wants to join in, admiring the big-name gangsters like others admire baseball stars.

A federal officer comes to town, and we can tell he’s no-good because he’s perfumed, wears a bow-tie, and has bleached eyebrows. He’s played by Guy Pearce in a very bad performance, though I can’t blame Pearce entirely, because his character is given no place for growth. At least he didn’t have a mustache to twirl. He has brought the other moonshiners in line in a protection racket, but the Bondurants don’t go along.

The problem with this film is that it’s all sizzle and no steak. I just couldn’t get behind the brothers, who are, after all, crooks. Unlike films like The Godfather or Goodfellas, which ask us to empathize with criminals, the Bondurant brothers are just lifeless blobs. I liked Hardy’s technique, but Forrest seems to expend a great deal of energy with every word. Howard is a nonentity, and I guess I never will get the stardom of LaBeouf, who provides nothing here. He gets a subplot involving his romancing of the daughter of a Mennonite preacher (Mia Wasikowska) that is completely dull.

A few other subplots are also underdeveloped. Gary Oldman has a couple of scenes as a famous gangster, but he gives us nothing more than, “Hey, it’s Gary Oldman!” Chastain appears as a woman with a mysterious past who takes a job at the Bondurant’s store, but she’s wasted (aside from the nude scene).

Lawless is based on a true story, so perhaps I just have to accept the instances where, despite the state of emergency medicine in Appalachia in 1931, characters make remarkable recoveries from seemingly fatal wounds. But it comes across as bullshit.

With the talent involved, Lawless is a profound disappointment, but lovely to look at.

My grade for Lawless: C.

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

2 responses »

  1. Mostly agreed with the review. This is a dud.

    More than anything, I found myself tiring of the constant violence. I’m not really sure why – I can deal with violence in movies, and I still really like Hillcoat’s The Proposition. But in this movie, it felt forced, like the filmmakers were going out of their way to make it as unpleasantly violent as possible. And for no good reason.

    I felt like it really got in the way of the story, as if the movie had to stop what it was doing every now and again in order for someone to commit some especially gruesome violent act. How else to explain Pearce’s character, when the movie could barely be bothered to explain what he was up to in the first place? What is Oldman doing in the movie when his character is wholly extraneous? Why does Hardy’s character exist, when his only discernible character traits are his inaudible muttering and his ability to survive especially gruesome violent acts committed against him?

    Just a tedious film, unfocused and unpleasant.

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