Lawless is one of those oh so tricky review subjects. It’s not a bad movie. But in terms of story it is severely lacking.
The film concerns the adventures of the Bondurant clan, a hillbilly family running a bootlegging business during America’s Prohibition era. Head of the clan is Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy), who, with his brother Howard (Jason Clarke), is the focus of a local legend: they are believed to be unkillable. Naturally, this reputation, and their formidable fighting abilities, gives them something of an edge in their criminal enterprise. But the third Bondurant brother has no such rep. Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf) is no fighter. But he is ambitious, and itching to prove himself in the bootlegging trade, against the wishes of Forrest.
Meanwhile, the Bondurants are also coming under pressure from outside. A corrupt judge is setting up his own crime syndicate in Franklin County and sends his chief lieutenant, the truly sadistic Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), to bring the Bondurants to heel. Forrest however is not the kind of man to kowtow to anyone. As a result, the Bondurants gain physical enemies to complement their familial strife.
That sounds pretty interesting doesn’t it? Larger than life characters living a harsh, violent existence makes for a good movie, especially when everyone speaks with that wonderful Southern twang. And that’s not all the film has going for it. The action is not only brutal, it’s well shot, the camerawork really emphasising the shock value. The acting is great too. Hardy and Pearce do good work (Pearce in particular has a fantastic line in evil looks). LaBeouf makes up somewhat for his involvement with the Transformers franchise with a solid performance, though his emotional range could do with widening. Dane DeHaan, star of Chronicle, proves very likeable in his role as Cricket Pate, a cheery crippled boy adopted by the Bondurants for his skills as a mechanic. And then there’s Gary Oldman, who, as gangster Floyd Banner, is the definition of badass.
But what all this means is that I can’t quite describe Lawless as a bad movie. Problem is, it’s not a good one either.
My main issue is how thin the characters are. Forrest Bondurant is so busy being hard that he never gets any depth or motivation, and the same is true of Charlie Rakes. Neither man seems to want anything in particular. Sure it’s all very impressive when they start killing people in nasty ways, and technically they each desire the destruction of the other. But we are never treated to a consistent show of them acting against one another. There’s no sense of consistency to their cut-and-thrust. There’s the bit at the beginning where they meet, a section in the middle where the Bondurants endure an attack by Rake’s goons and then deal out vengeance, and then there’s a spectacular climax. But there’s nothing to tie those scenes together, no discussions of plans or tactics. Events just seem to happen in isolation, like the two sides are playing some senseless, bloody tit-for-tat.
Jack Bondurant by contrast does at least have some motivation: he wants to be a bootlegger of equal standing to his brothers. Problem is, he achieves this by the second act. I would call that a satisfactory conclusion to Jack’s arc, if it wasn’t happening in the middle of the film. But Lawless it seems has other ideas. It turns out that Jack’s personal growth is not about him becoming self-confident, or gaining business sense. The ending makes it clear: Jack’s arc is about him plucking up the courage to shoot people. This is not an ambition that provokes sympathy and support from me. It might work if the arc was handled like Michael’s is in The Godfather: the sad tale of a man who is forced by family ties and circumstance into the underworld. But Jack’s inability to kill is presented by the film as cowardice, and the capacity for violence is treated as something laudable. This is a real tonal misjudgement. Only people of Kubrickian talent can pull off an individual becoming evil as something triumphal, and director John Hillcoat is no Kubrick.
What this, in summary, means is that Lawless is a film that seeks to provoke emotional reaction without justifying those reactions to the audience. I think the character of Charlie Rakes identifies this problem best. From the moment he enters the film, it is obvious that we in the audience are supposed to hate him, and this is not just because Pearce is great at playing the scumbag. We are supposed to hate him for his fancy, formal duds, for his shiny shoes, for his oily hair, for essentially being fastidious, well-dressed and snobbish. And that turned me off immediately. I don’t appreciate being manipulated that blatantly. A story should make me hate a person for what he/she does, or what he/she is inside: not for their appearance. And Lawless held off on properly justifying dislike of the man until the very end.
What I mean is that Lawless made very little effort to have us understand its characters. It makes even less in demonstrating why we should care about their struggles. It’s disappointing. Here we have a movie involving many people doing legitimately great work. But without the storytelling to back it up, Lawless is ultimately a thin, dis-satisfactory experience.