Lawless (2012)

Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Guy Pearce, Jason Clarke, Mia Wasikowska, Dane DeHaan, Chris McGarry, Tim Tolin, Gary Oldman, Noah Taylor, Lew Temple, Marcus Hester.

Director: John Hillcoat
Rating: R (for strong bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity.)
Running Time: 115 Minutes
Release Date: August 29, 2012
Home Video Release Date: TBD
North American Box Office: $TBD

Annapurna Pictures, Benaroya Pictures, Blum Hanson Allen Films, Pie Films, Inc., Red Wagon Productions, and The Weinstein Company.

Written by: Nick Cave, adapted from the novel “The Wettest County In The World” by Matt Bondurant.

★★ (out of 5 stars)

Developing slowly like a sit-around-the-campfire, storytelling folk song, Lawless is a brutish, violently intriguing, powder keg of a historical drama.  The fascinating behind-the-scenes story is almost better than the actual story, as Matt Bondurant, a writer and native of Franklin County, Virginia uncovered amazing details surrounding his family’s rise and success in the bootlegging business during the Prohibition-era of the late 1920s and early 1930s.  Learning more and more details from genealogy findings, newspaper clippings, family research, and court documents, Bondurant was not only successful in learning about his heritage, but also in uncovering the story of how his grandfather and two grand-uncles thrived, albeit illegally, during the Great Depression.

Lawless finds the Bondurant novel adapted by singer/songwriter/writer Nick Cave, a gothic-style storyteller whose short-story style of folk music earned him an impassioned following and cult status during the 1990s alternative rock boom.  Cave spins this Bondurant yarn like one of his beloved album tracks, putting the kettle on, letting the fire burn beneath a layered and detailed story, eventually driving us towards a blood drenched and gunpowder stained outburst of emotion, anger, and fearlessness.

Shia LaBeouf’s Jack Bondurant serves as the focal point of Cave’s screenplay, with Jack the youngest of three brothers on the cusp of wealth and fortune in his family’s bootlegging business.  Jack is an awkward, somewhat clumsy adult, determined to prove his wherewithal to brothers Howard (Jason Clarke) and oldest brother, Forrest (Tom Hardy).  Cave and director John Hillcoat place us in Franklin County, Virginia expertly and after a rough altercation opens the film, we learn how matter-of-fact the Bondurants live their lives, tending to their gas station/restaurant/saloon, which serves as a front for the moonshine business overseen by a curious fellow known as Cricket Pate (Dane DeHaan).

Forrest is the intimidating leader of the Bondurant boys, Howard falls in line, says little and elicits fear from his silent demeanor, while Jack is the more adventurous soul.  Two women draw the attention of Jack and Forrest around the same time.  Maggie (Jessica Chastain) essentially appears out of thin air, arriving in Franklin County to get away from “The City” and Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) is a preacher’s daughter, whose purity and innocence makes Jack swoon.

As the Bondurants attempt to prosper in their bootlegging affairs, they unwittingly cross paths with Deputy Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce), who arrives with effete mannerisms, an unsettling look and frighteningly sadistic temperament.  Rakes is on to the Bondurants trade and is as corrupt and dirty as you can imagine – threatening, mugging, and killing callously without remorse.

Lawless is, in equal measure, intriguing and frustrating.  Cinematographer Benoit Delhomme creates some gorgeous shots in and around Franklin County, capturing picturesque beauty in a snowy evening as well as vividly capturing the rough and weathered wooden set pieces.  Director John Hillcoat has taken great pains to make the film look and feel authentic to its time period and succeeds in easing us into the atmospheric tone.

The acting performances are all compelling and strong with Shia LaBeouf equipping himself fine in a prestige-style role such as Jack Bondurant.  Guy Pearce, unnervingly campy and chewing all the scenery he can swallow, is rightfully detestable, but Tom Hardy (again) steals the show as a mumbling man of few words, who utters a lexicon of half-sentences, grunts and groans which provide comic relief and enough dramatic bend to propel the story forward.  Save his wasted work in the forgettable This Means War, Hardy simply cannot miss right now.

Lawless stumbles at its very core however as Nick Cave fails to seal the deal with his screenplay.  In this regard, Lawless plays incomplete when it comes to character motivations and internal struggles.  The women, understood and brought to life astutely by Chastain and Wasikowska are almost unnecessary by the end of the piece.  Their involvement in the story brings minimal influence on where the Bondurants ultimately end up, as these Bondurant boys are accustomed to doing what they want, when they want, and how they want.  When all the issues in Lawless reach a breaking point, Maggie and Bertha are distant memories as none of the Bondurant boys are ever really fighting for them in any capacity.  So why go through the exercise of making us care about characters who exist simply because the film needs some women involved?

If Cave underwhelms with his supporting character development (did Gary Oldman really agree to just two scenes of work or is there more of him coming in the Blu-Ray?), he wins with witty and compelling dialogue, aiding John Hillcoat and editor Dylan Tichenor in never allowing Lawless to feel boring at 115 minutes.

Lyrically told, beautifully shot and paced, with a standout turn from Tom Hardy, Lawless is a good film.  Had Nick Cave been able to find a way to pump blood and air through his paper thin supporting players and further define their motivations, Lawless could have been a powerful, even sweeping epic.  That it underachieves is a letdown, but if you can handle the violence, Lawless reaps some pretty great rewards.

  • A well made, historical drama captures its period well and never loses an engaging pace.  Surprisingly accessible.
  • Tom Hardy.  Almost worth the price of admission alone, Hardy delivers a mix of intensity and comic relief that scores each and every time he is on screen.
  • Those familiar with the book will be interested, as I imagine Nick Cave’s fans will be as well.  They will find a good film here and likely be pleased.
  • The choice of using roots music with vocals predominantly instead of a more traditional score is at once, different, and distracting.  Songs seem out of tune with the tone of the film.
  • Those attuned to watching dramatic films will likely develop frustration over the underwriting of important supporting characters and start to see holes in the story they are investing in.
  • Not for the squeamish.  When the violence arrives, it is pretty graphic and for some viewers, it will all serve as too much.

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