Lawless’ opening gambit is that it is ‘based on a true story’, five words that should always trigger a slight suspicion in the minds of cinema-goers, especially when the true story has been adapted into a book by the descendant of a family of violent, bootlegging gangsters. And throughout the runtime of John Hillcoat’s period, prohibition-era set crime drama (which serves as a nice Western counterpoint, to his previous criminal brothers movie, the Australia based Proposition), the events certainly take more than a few turns for the unbelievable, stretching credulity to breaking point, from the near invincible Bondurant brothers to the pantomime villains and morality.
The aforementioned brothers form a small time smuggling syndicate, alongside their nameless driver, innocent and harmless engineer (Dane DeHaan, constantly looking like he’s about to die) and their hired help of Jessica Chastain. Shia LaBeouf, sporting one of the worst cinematic hairstyles of this year, is the baby brother of Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke’s no-nonsense fighters and attempts to take the family business into his own hands before fucking it all kinds of up and falling foul of Guy Pearce’s townie, sadist lawman. Speaking of lawmen, it is in its treatment of these authority figures that Lawless leaves a distinctly iffy taste in the mouth, thanks to the relentless, gleeful beatings of the local sheriff and his agents. It seems justified against Pearce’s Charlie Rakes (an asexual, eyebrowless monstrosity), but towards the local forces just doing their job (on the right side of the law) it makes it rather difficult to root for the three ‘heroes’.
Especially when the violence is so gruesome. Fists, blades and bullets fly, revealing gouts of blood and gore and in some particularly grim sequences, a man is tarred and feathered whilst another receives a non-consensual, impromptu castration. Morals aside, it is this brutality, and the threat of more to come that sometimes allows scenes to positively exude with atmospheric menace, building genuine tension, particularly in moments featuring Tom Hardy’s Forrest or the more high ranking villains.
It seems an unfortunate choice to put the lead role in the hands of the film’s least able actor, with Shia LaBeouf often outclassed by the near wordless Hardy (who gains the film’s few laughs, using his confused mumbling as a way to converse with almost everyone) or the supremely underused Gary Oldman, who could have shone if he was given more than his 5 minutes of allocated screentime as Floyd Banner, the only big time gangster in the story. He starts promisingly, with an absolutely blistering introduction, but almost immediately disappears into the background to appear once more with about 8 lines. Both female parts are also underdone, Chastain acting as the nagging influence that tries to stop the boys being boys, whilst Mia Wasikowska plays the instantly seduced fairytale romance for Jack Bondurant (LaBeouf), in a role that smacks of lazy oversight in the script
It certainly looks the part, though, 20s Virginia lovingly recreated with excellent set dressing, costumes and wilderness focused camerawork, meaning that the realistic violence comes across as all the more shocking. It is here where Lawless can’t seem to make up its mind regarding this family of ne’er-do-wells, their unsettling violence realistically portrayed, yet with an obvious glorification of the gangster lifestyle, especially in the final 5-10 minutes. Overall though, it is impossible to deny the memorable impact that certain moments have. It’s just that this had the potential to be a lot more.
Director: John Hillcoat
Writer: Nick Cave
Stars: Shia LaBoeuf, Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce
Run Time: 115 mins