Based on a ‘true story’ (everybody roll your eyes and take it with a pinch of Hollywood salt), Lawless is a Depression-era gangster film-centered around the three legendary Bondurant brothers Jack (Shia LaBeouf), Howard (Jason Clarke) and Forrest (Tom Hardy). Fuelled by the belief that they are invincible since surviving an illness which killed their parents, they rule the prohibited moonshine bootlegging business until Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) steps on to the scene. So far then, we are treading on themes already covered in The Untouchables and the original Scarface, but relocated to a more of a deep south backdrop. So what should Lawless have that these films don’t?
As Forrest’s character says early on in the film, "It is not the violence that sets a man apart; it’s the distance he’s prepared to go". This sums up the film perfectly; it tries to show just how lawless these times are with extreme acts of violence on both the bootleggers and the authorities who try and get in their way. But it falls short because (perhaps I’m being cynical here), I’ve got so used to violent films at it really is a case of ‘just another guy getting his balls chopped off’. All of its plotlines are based on macho brawls that end up being cliches: from the runt-of-the-litter scenarios that Jack has to overcome to the no-nonsense Chicago gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), these are all variations of stories we have seen before.
The one character who stands out though is that of the eldest brother Forrest. Still beefed up from his role as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, Hardy is proving to be another formidable contender in the contemporary leading man stakes a la Gosling and Fassbender. He shows his character to be both intimidating enough for the police to be afraid of him, but also emotionally detached and even a bit socially awkward. My only quibble is, as with his portrayal Bane, the accent Hardy uses means it’s easier to mistake his line and just hear monosyllabic grunts (not to mention when he purposefully growls, that is just downright laughable).
Nonetheless, his is definitely the character you are most intrigued by and, in comparison, Forrest makes the other brothers seem like add-ons to fill the film out. And that leads me to another criticism; I know this film is about the boys but the female storylines just aren’t expanded on enough. For instance, there is no repercussions of Bertha’s (Mia Wasikowska) rebellion from the church and her relationship with her father is never properly explored. It’s like director John Hillcoat and writer Nick Cave (yes, that one) tried to cram too much into the the film at the beginning but realised it’s too long and cut it short. In fact, the whole film ends too abruptly and is ham-fisted in its conclusion. Perhaps there is a director’s cut somewhere in an editing room which gives the whole film time to breath.
Stylistically and acting-wise though, the film is top notch. The murky colour scheme of greys and browns is similar to Hillcoat’s previous film The Road, adding to the gloom and giving Lawless a period authenticity. Shia La Boeuf is back to playing more of a lose character, similar to the one he played so long ago in Holes, which suits him far more than his action hero stint in the Transformers franchise. Guy Pearce still remains one of my favourite and most underrated actors as he is simply so malleable and no two characters played by him are ever too similar, whilst Jessica Chastain who pulls off the challenge of holding her own next to Tom Hardy. Lawless may have some flaws, but on the whole it is not a bad film. It’s just one that you might feel like you’ve seen a handful of times before.