Lawless: Moonshine Drama Distills Great Performances, But Ends Up Watery
In his newest film “Lawless,” Australian director John Hillcoat plunges his audience headlong into the violent and ugly business of Prohibition-era bootlegging. But this is no “Boardwalk Empire.” Far from the glitz and the glamor of New York or Atlantic City, Hillcoat focuses on backwoods Franklin County, Virginia, where the three Bondurant brothers, Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke), and Jack (Shia LaBeouf), make moonshine out of their combination bar/restaurant/gas station.
While the three enjoyed an easy relationship with the law for most of their careers and a near-legendary reputation among the locals, trouble soon comes to their operation in the form of a mandate from the crooked district attorney demanding a cut of the profits from all bootleggers. He brings with him the sadistic Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce, minus the eyebrows), whose unflinching cruelty eventually leaves the Bondurants as the only bootleggers in opposition to this corrupt new decree.
“Lawless” tells the true story of the war between the brothers and the law, combining tones of uncompromising realism with the wistful strains of folklore and painting (at times effectively, at others, not so much) its characters as larger than life symbols for the befuddled morality of the Prohibition era.
Despite a good deal of minor successes, the primary strength of “Lawless” is its actors, who each turn in full performances that transcend Nick Cave’s disappointing script. Among the brothers, Shia LaBeouf and Tom Hardy draw most of the film’s focus, while Clarke seems to be mostly relegated to a place as the family’s mad dog. LaBeouf’s Jack fills the archetypal role of the outsider within the family—he may drive his brothers back and forth during their deliveries, but his role in the actual making of the liquor is minimal.
Naturally, the film takes care to lead Jack down a somewhat mechanical path, so that by the time the credits roll, he has proven himself to his brothers and the audience. Standard stuff. Surprisingly, however, LaBeouf pulls it off. I’m not sure if it’s simply because the script taps into the everyman quality of the actor or whether Hillcoat just got lucky but Jack, in all his early cowardice and midterm cockiness, is possibly the most lovable character on the screen.
Hardy, who portrays the gruff, seemingly indestructible eldest Bondurant, carries his role well, strutting about with the simian aggression that he brought to his performance as Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises.” He seems to grunt or mumble most of his lines (though he does bellow his threats), subtly undercutting each cold bark with a note of tenderness, oafish as the moments may seem. He plays Forrest as violent and visceral, yet dutiful and loving all the same. In his performance’s best moments, those qualities bleed together to form a muddy grey compulsion, by which the character conducts himself.
The final performance worth mentioning is turned in by Guy Pearce, as the film’s foppishly sinister antagonist, Special Agent Rakes. As far as I see it, Pearce was given by far the most work of any performer in the film, asked to transform an unrepentantly, unrealistically evil creation into a man. He partially succeeds. But even where he falters, damn, that performance is entertaining. Dressing in the finest suits and leather gloves, hair slicked back, Pearce looks like he’s recently waltzed off the set of a parody of “The Great Gatsby,” so it’s quite the surprise when his frighteningly measured demeanor erupts into outright violence. In many ways, Pearce’s Rakes resembles Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa from “Inglorious Basterds,” with the latter’s sense of humor discarded in favor of a vulgar self-righteousness.
Unfortunately, these performances are not quite enough to keep the film afloat amidst its other failings, most notably the uneven tone and pacing. Throughout its runtime, “Lawless” leaps from lethargic droning stretches to bursts of full-blown carnage, with very little thematic or stylistic linkage. More troubling, however, is the film’s seeming uncertainty about how it wishes to frame its story, as it moves almost at random from blocks that attempt to recall the legendary individualist status of the bootlegger in American culture to others where Hillcoat seems to want to demolish these notions altogether, bringing home the unabashed brutality of the era. There’s an aching incongruity to the film’s various aspirations that pops in far too frequently and far too loudly for an audience to ignore. Accordingly, I found myself having to readjust between sections, realign my expectations and, during some portions, entirely disengage from the action in a way that made it incredibly difficult to latch back onto both the characters and their objectives.
In addition to this, the film’s script seems dry and inert throughout its length. Rather than logically making decisions, the characters act as though they are moving from scene to scene, simply propelling the action, without any insight into the deeper psychology of the players provided by the cast. Furthermore, there are two gossamer- thin love stories that seem so haphazardly air-dropped into the plot that I had to debate whether even mentioning them at all.
As an admirer of Hillcoat, it was hard for me to watch this film without thinking of the director’s brilliant 2005 feature, “The Proposition,” a Western set in newly-settled Australia. Both films feature three brothers up against the whims of a brutal lawman and both revel in the moral gray. Furthermore, both indulge tonal dichotomies in ways that define their effect on the viewer. Just as in “Lawless,” Hillcoat juxtaposes moments of somber serenity and hungry slaughter in “The Proposition.” There, however, he takes painstaking efforts to link the two. Using the Australian wilderness as his canvas, Hillcoat defines both the quiet longings and thundering uproars of “The Proposition” as features of the terrain, inextricably tied to the land, and thus tied to the characters whom that land shaped. In “Lawless,” though, the setting is just backdrop. For all the film’s gorgeous cinematography, all of its breathtaking shots of the land, it is only land and nothing more.
Now all this is not to say that the film can’t at times be good entertainment. The action sequences are well-shot and engaging. There are bits of humor sprinkled throughout. On the whole, however, “Lawless” simply fails to deliver on the massive potential of those involved, offering up wooden writing that fails its actors, a muddied thematic outlook that hops between ugliness and righteousness, right past nuance, and seemingly has no idea of what it actually wants to be. There’s no worse feeling than leaving a theater and knowing how much more a film could have been.