Lawless (United States, 2012)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Lawless Poster

The niche occupied by Lawless is a precarious one. Too erudite for the average action/thriller-oriented moviegoer and too pulpy for the art house crowd, this intense, brutal drama may struggle to find an audience. A fictionalized account of the life of novelist Matt Bondurant's grandfather's struggles as a bootlegger in Prohibition-era Virginia, Lawless is a tense, engaging piece that finds time for moments of levity, darker comedy, and romance. It suffers from underdeveloped subplots and a moderate lack of focus during the final 30 minutes, but the experience as a whole is considerably above what one expects from a late August release. This is a well-made movie that deserves a higher profile than it is being accorded.

The strength of the cast assembled by Australian-born director John Hillcoat is eye-opening. This isn't a group of nobodies, has-beens, and never-will-bes. Shia LaBeouf, whose reputation as an actor was tarnished by appearances in a string of financially successful but creatively bankrupt films (three Transformers movies and the Indiana Jones chapter no one wants to remember), reminds viewers why, at one time, he was highly regarded. Tom Hardy and Gary Oldman shot this film immediately before being reunited for The Dark Knight Rises. Jessica Chastain, in perhaps her sexiest role to date (complete with a topless scene), continues to defy typecasting. Throw in Guy Pearce at his oily, sadistic best and a sadly underused Mia Wasikowski, and you have the makings of a tremendous troupe. Nick Cave's script is (mostly) worthy of all that talent.

The story transpires during 1930 in a backwater town in Franklin County, Virginia. The Bondurant brothers, timid Jack (LaBeouf), quiet Forrest (Hardy), and maniac Howard (Jason Clarke), aren't the only bootleggers around, but they're the best and most respected. Their livelihood is threatened by the arrival of Charlie Rakes (Pearce), a "special deputy" from Chicago who has come to Virginia to stop those who violate the law of the land. What that means is that those who pay a fee are allowed to continue bootlegging while those who don't are shut down, often by the use of barbaric means. The Bondurants refuse to give in to Rakes and their stubbornness instigates a war.

As is often the case with Depression-era gangster movies, the lawbreakers are the protagonists and the lawmen are the villains. Lawless does not go out of its way to romanticize the Bondurants or their lifestyles. When it comes to bloodletting, they can be as vicious as their adversaries. Yet, as bad as they can be at times, Rakes is much worse. He's the kind of sleazy, vile bad guy that audiences fall in love with hating. This kind of role requires a little overplaying and Pearce knows just how far to take things to amplify the menace without turning the character into a cartoon.

Certain scenes are infused with an almost unbearable level of tension, especially once the tit-for-tat battles begin. Caught in the crossfire is Maggie Beauford (Chastain), an exotic dancer from Chicago who fled to Franklin County to escape the kind of violence in which she finds herself embroiled as Forrest's lover. Her story, like the others tangential to the main narrative, is short-changed by the demands of a sub-two hour running length. Jack's romance with a preacher's daughter (Wasikowski) is so skeletal that it generates almost nothing along in the nature of romantic tension. Likewise, Gary Oldman's part is little more than an extended cameo. The epic that is perhaps related in the novel The Wettest County in the World was trimmed a little too much on the way to the screen. We're left wishing for more.

The ending gives us what we want but in a roundabout way and there's a sense that things are drawn out too much on the way to that moment. For most of the film's two hours, it builds toward an inevitable climax but, when that arrives, there's something understated about how it unfolds. It's not as satisfying as it might be and the epilogue, although welcome, lasts a minute or two too long. Blemishes of this nature do little to reduce Lawless' compulsive watchability. This is the kind of movie where it's tough to imagine taking a bathroom break. It uses top-notch acting, a strong screenplay, and plenty of sex and violence to hold even the most lazy viewer's attention. It's an adult story of the sort that is being pushed out of the theaters and onto cable TV in today's era of PG-13. With its period canvas and larger-than-life characters, Lawless deserves to be seen on a big screen. Its impact, like its images, may be reduced in a more intimate surrounding.

Lawless (United States, 2012)

Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 2012-08-29
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Sexual Content, Nudity, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1