Rednecks and White Lightning

Lawless does its job, but goes down rough

Scuff him, scrape him, buff him up; nobody is going to buy Shia LaBeouf as a country boy. He has a face built for Instagram and his posture is that of a narcissist demanding bottle service at a trendy club. Even though he plays the least burly of the Bondurant boys, a real life trio of brothers who ran moonshine during prohibition, nobody is buying what he is desperately giving away. Thus, it’s a minor miracle that Lawless mostly works anyway.

Set in 1930s Virginia, Lawless is kind of a redneck fairy tale: three boys thumb their nose at the law, get rich off the land and love the hell out of their kin. The leader of the pack is Forrest (Tom Hardy), an unassuming mountain of a man who prefers grunting to speaking. He and his brothers, Jack (LaBeouf) and Howard (Jason Clarke), have become legends in Franklin County, as rumor has it they can’t be killed. Willing to put that legend to the test is Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), brought from Chicago to bust moonshining heads (or at least muscle in on their action). When Forrest won’t give Rakes a taste, it becomes a war, with Jack’s young love interest, Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), and Forrest’s lady friend, Maggie (Jessica Chastain), caught in the crossfire.

Lawless eventually settles just outside of great, having blown past “acceptable” and “decent” before finally taking up residence in “pretty good.” Director John Hillcoat and writer Nick Cave (yes, that Nick Cave) managed something akin to a “noir western.” It’s Chinatown by way of the pony express. Hardy is the glue that holds this semi-mess together, with Pearce shaving his eyebrows and slicking his hair into demented cartoonish villainhood that is eminently watchable. Oh, and dames don’t come more troubled or tempting than Chastain’s Maggie, a redhead poured into dresses that pop with color against a sufferingly bland background.

And it all almost adds up, but it’s just a little Shia of perfect. LaBeouf’s performance is tone deaf, not enough time is spent with the most interesting characters (Forrest and Maggie) and huge subplots are dropped like a hot pistol. Gary Oldman plays a tommy gun-toting mobster…for like two scenes. The Blu-Ray will inevitably feature the entirety of his aborted storyline. While Hillcoat does have an eye for revolver and shotgun-based action and sparse scenery, but it’s outweighed by his bloodlust. His first film, The Proposition, had more blood in the mud than can almost be imagined, so Lawless may feel like he’s taking it down a notch. Still, throats are opened, neck growths are popped and Forrest’s brass knuckles sure do crack a lot. 

There are moments when Lawless is almost thrilling, when it is definitely well acted (as in, whenever Chastain is on screen) and when it comes close to feeling complete. Maybe one more draft of the script (keep making music, Mr. Cave), one more round of edits (come on, Mr. Hillcoat) or one different actor in a key role (exit stage left, Mr. LaBeouf) we’d be talking about Lawless as a summer surprise and not a near miss.

Grade = B


posted at 03:50 pm
on Friday, August 31st, 2012


(We're testing Disqus commenting (finally!); please let us know if you have trouble.)

comments powered by Disqus


« Previous Page

Surprise and No Surprise

The MPPA needs a new rule. Before film trailers can be officially released, they must be conditioned with A Clockwork Orange-style aversion therapy to not spoil the films they’re advertising.  Strap...

more »

This Is What Feminism Looks Like

Let’s start where things end: As the list of dates on which countries around the world finally recognized women’s right to vote scrolled at the end of Suffragette, the oxygen was sucked out of the...

more »

Oh No, Double 0

One time, in a James Bond movie, Denise Richards played a nuclear scientist named Dr. Christmas Jones. It’s just important for everybody freaking out about how Spectre isn’t that great to remember...

more »

Picking on Critics and Critics’ Picks

My unabashed, unapologetic love for Film Streams has been well documented over the years. You have to forgive me if I feel eternally grateful for them saving this fair city from remaining a barren...

more »

Killing Expectations

How are we lucky enough to get Mad Max: Fury Road and The Assassin in the same year? Like Fury Road, Hou Hsiou-hsien’s new arthouse action flick is stunningly cinematic, wholly engrossing and utterly...

more »

Advanced Search