Lawless (***)

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Buoyed by some fine performances and winning filmmaking, Lawless manages to overcome some script deficiencies on its way to being a solid movie and a great entry into the cannon of outlaw films.  John Hillcoat’s bruising prohibition era drama takes place in the Appalachian Mountains and tells the tale of bootlegging Bondurant brothers, played by Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke. These brothers have achieved such a stature that basically run the town, inundating everyone, including the police officers and law makers with liquor, firmly earning the area the title of “the wettest county in the world.” But of course, this type of unsavory business cannot go on unchecked and when the U.S. government comes calling for a portion of the funds, the brothers and the community find themselves faced with the law’s special agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a man who is just as “lawless” as them. “Unstoppable force meets immovable object” certainly rings true as the tensions created by Rakes and the Bondurant brother builds to a gratifying, if gratuitous, climax and resolution.

I came to the conclusion by the end of the film that Lawless, at its core, is a throwback to films like the crowd pleasing outlaw/gangster films Hollywood used to make. Sure there are some problems, but they’re easier to ignore when the film has a good sense of forward momentum, fun character development, and a great payoff at the end. Hillcoat and screenwriter/composer Nick Cave managed to craft an incredible world for their actors to play in and us to watch. The violence in the film is bruising and tough to watch sometimes, befitting the “lawless” moniker. I was reminded of the extend shooting sequence in the cafe in the original Scarface in that the violence can just pop up in a film and just have its way with you. Hillcoat’s direction in this movie is top-notch; he lets the emotions and the drama simmer just beneath the surface, winding the audience up until the next explosion of violence. Which is why it’s a shame that there are narrative deficiencies that threaten to yank you from this lively experience?

The film is presented as a true story, but to me it felt more like a true story via folk tale spun into an urban legend. There’s an inherent silliness in presenting people who routinely ignore laws as heroes. But when you add the air, and narrative driving plot point, of invincibility and it takes some of the teeth out of the stakes of the plot. Sure we are worried for our anti-heroes, but it takes a lot of suspension of disbelief near the end of the film to believe they could truly survive. It also doesn’t help that they make Guy Pearce’s character so EVIL rather than just evil. Pearce might be having a fun time attempting to chew the scenery but his shtick gets old quite easily. The film’s really tragedy however, is that it doesn’t know what to do with Gary Oldman’s character. He features prominently in the opening scenes and about midway through the film has an interesting interaction with Shia and then, nothing. All throughout the climactic battles when you think he might pop back up or that the Bondurants would ask him for help, still nothing. He’s not even mentioned in the last 30 minutes of the movie. You don’t hire someone like Oldman to just show up in a few scenes that don’t have much bearing on the narrative and then banish the character to purgatory. I wish they would have removed the character or found someone, ne anyone else to play this role. It’s a thankless character and not deserving of Oldman’s talents.

But while you might think from that last paragraph that the script doesn’t serve the actors or make for a 3 star review, when you have actors firing on all cylinders even problematic material can be elevated. Shia LaBeouf, yes that Shia, is one of the standouts, finally showing some of the promise that these directors might see in him. As the younger brother Jack, LaBeouf really plays up his character’s naiveté and desire to ultimately be like his brother. It’s great fun seeing him acting like a man who’s acting tougher than he looks or is. Shiva’s performance goes in a much darker direction as the film progresses and he really sells it when the film calls for some emotional scenes that remind you of how young his character is. Tom Hardy is a joy to watch as the eldest, cardigan wearing brother. Unlike his menacing, outwardly imposing Bane, his Forrest Bondurant is knows the value of movement and voice. You always got a sense with Bane that there was a bit of a showman in him. There’s none of that with Forrest, just calculated, caged danger. The character is not big on speeches or grand gestures in public, and Hardy brings a quiet serenity to a man who is not afraid to get his hands dirty. Much of that can be attributed to the way the character speaks, offering not much more than a monosyllabic “huh” or “hmm” to convey an entire array of feelings. It’s a really interesting role for Hardy to take on and it fits him like a glove.

But the MVP of the film is most certainly Jessica Chastain. Although absent from my brief summary and most of this review (I’m saving the best for last), she strides into this film near the beginning and steals the movie. Her character is a welcome addition to this tale of men, and Chastain blazes the screen with a world weariness and sexual energy that this testosterone driven film most certainly needed. Whether she’s attempting to seduce or trying to maintain a tough exterior after a tragic experience, her scenes are a treasure and I would pay the price of admission just to see her and Tom Hardy acting together. Though it will be tough, she’s enough of a standout that her performance could end up being Oscar nominated.

Even with the problems, I sit firmly in the camp that really enjoyed this movie. There’s something to be said for a film that has some problems winning over an audience and this movie certainly manages this. It’s a true throw back that everyone should look forward to seeing in theaters when it arrives on August 29th.