'Lawless' movie review
By Ann Hornaday
Wednesday, August 29, 2012
With visions of “The Public Enemy,” “Bonnie and Clyde” and even “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” dancing in its head, the Prohibition-era drama “Lawless” winds up being equal to none of them -- even if it holds its own as a modestly respectable genre exercise.
Don’t misunderstand: John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Matt Bondurant’s dramatized family history “The Wettest County in the World” has much to recommend it, including the kind of high-toned visual style Hillcoat’s fans have come to expect from the director of “The Proposition” and “The Road.” Then there’s Tom Hardy, recently seen hiding behind a mask in “The Dark Knight Rises,” who can now be seen if not entirely heard as the monosyllabic alpha dog of a booze-running band of brothers. If his dialogue amounts to barely comprehensible growls and grunts, he still makes for an indelible screen presence. And Guy Pearce -- who has delivered such pungent supporting roles recently, in everything from “The Hurt Locker” to “Animal Kingdom” -- once again makes the most of what he’s given, in this case the toothsome role as a lawman with a perverse streak as wide as the great Blue Ridge.
Still, an inescapable sense of “so what?” sets in early with “Lawless,” almost as soon as Shia LaBeouf begins his lackluster opening narration. In 1931, in Franklin County, Va., Jack Bondurant (LaBeouf) and his big brothers Howard (Jason Clarke) and Forrest (Hardy) divide their time between running the family’s general store and a lucrative moonshine operation. It’s a tidy living that is threatened by the arrival of Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Pearce), a slickster from Chicago given to bow ties, lavender gloves and a deranged high-pitched giggle. His opposite number, a celebrity criminal named Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), hovers around the proceedings like a Tommy gun-toting eminence grise, with young Jack Bondurant idolizing him from afar and eventually enlisting him to help earn tough-guy bona fides.
With its sepia-drenched imagery, ritualistic brutality and mythologized portrait of fraternal solidarity, “Lawless” comports with nearly every rule governing the gangster-picture genre at its most action-packed and romantic. This is the kind of blood-letting valentine to murder, moonshine and male vanity that can either become a classic on a par with “Miller’s Crossing” or “Bonnie and Clyde” or a respectable but otherwise un-noteworthy also-ran. “Lawless” belongs to the latter category if only because it re-treads such well-traveled territory without discovering anything genuinely new or surprising (unless you count the most luridly graphic throat-slitting in recent memory).
Despite the Bondurants’ colorful history, none of them emerges as more than a stock type. “Lawless” also features two women with the requisite hearts of gold, albeit one slightly more tarnished than the other. As a mysterious long-stemmed rose named Maggie Beauford, Jessica Chastain looks lovely but has little more to do than pour coffee, peel potatoes and gaze meaningfully at Hardy. Mia Wasikowska at least benefits from a more compelling story line as an innocent church-going girl named Bertha who finds her latent wild streak when she begins to accept Jack’s attentions.
Pearce, Oldman and Dane DeHaan, as Jack’s best friend Cricket, deliver terrific performances, but theirs are the few moments in “Lawless” when viewers forget they’re watching people proclaiming, play-acting or prettily posing -- a sense of artifice all the more unfortunate for the story being grounded in Bondurant’s own family lore. (He based his novel on stories of his own grandfather and two great-uncles.) What’s more, Nick Cave, who wrote the script and composed the musical score, seems unsure whether “Lawless” should burnish the Bondurants’ myth or critique it -- a problem echoed in the film’s music, which veers between the rawness of Bertha’s shape-note hymns and jarringly contemporary-sounding folk music.
Cave last collaborated with Hillcoat on “The Proposition,” an Australian Western that felt like a bold reinvention of the form. “Lawless,” in contrast, feels less like it’s breaking new ground than going through old motions. A movie about outlaws -- whether indulging or interrogating their self-styled legend -- should never play it this safe.
Contains strong, bloody violence, profanity and some sexuality and nudity.