August 22, 2012 1 Comment
It’s Prohibition-era Virginia, and Bondurant brothers Jack (Shia LaBeouf), Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) are struggling in their illicit bootlegging business as the authorities vie for a percentage of their profits. As Jack attempts to court the disapproving daughter (Mia Wasikowska) of a local preacher aided by best friend Cricket (Dane DaHaan), Forrest finds himself falling for ex-burlesque dancer Maggie (Jessica Chastain). However, when a new special agent (Guy Pearce) arrives on the scene and Jack, tired of playing second fiddle to his brothers, crosses local gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) with moonshine of his own, profits quickly become the least of the brothers’ worries.
If The Expendables 2 played hardball with the most (in)famous names in action film history, then Lawless is the highbrow equivalent. Oldman, Chastain, Hardy: it’s like a who’s-who of the latest crop of critical darlings, with the worthy additions of Guy Pearce, Mia Wasikowska and Chronicle‘s Dane DeHaan providing occasional support. That’s all well and good, of course, but Lawless isn’t going to leave the 1930s Wild West in the hands of such compelling, charismatic and creative character actors. God no, they want you to care about Shia LaBeouf instead.
There are many problems with John Hillcoat’s worthy (did I say how worthy it is?) adaptation of Matt Bondurant’s The Wettest County In The World, which we’ll get to in due course, but the most insurmountable issue is LaBeouf himself. When sharing the screen with alien robots, trans-dimensional beings or animated surfing penguins, the actor is able to hold his own and just about carry the quieter moments between explosions, exposition or mad, rad waves. Here, however, he is supposed to do so much more. In a film as devoid of vitality as Franklin County itself, the character of Jack Bondurant does little to encourage investment or reward through emotional resonance.
Elsewhere, Hardy and Chastain concern themselves with all of the necessary acting, attacking thankless parts with all of the muted, dry and gender-appropriate mannerisms that the period demands (men are manly, women are naked). Admittedly, it is impossible to fault the supporting cast, their performances are award-worthy (there’s that word again) and undoubtedly the desired result of Hillcoat’s direction, a man with past experience in the genre having previously directed The Prohibition. It’s just that they’re so desperately unsympathetic, the story trundling along from one subtext-heavy, laboriously authentic showdown to the next with little reprieve from the crushingly earnest and heavy-handed intent. For 115 minutes.
Not that the film is light on ridiculous moments, which stand out far more than they might have done in a less self-serious context. Pearce’s federal agent, for instance, is almost cartoonish in his villainy, grotesque acts of violence doing little to offset his pantomime persona. Then there’s Forrest’s motivation for his final assault on the authorities, put on hold for a truly absurd length of time (and staggering number of personal affronts) until his token love interest is touched by the resident evil. The element that will smart most, however, is a horribly misjudged sequence featuring Wasikowska and a baby deer. Subtlety and sweetness clearly do not come naturally to the man who last made The Road.
Lawless is another of those films that gets so caught up in being authentic and gritty and worthy that it forgets to be enjoyable, too. It contains shocking acts of violence, considerable nudity and strong language, but to very little effect. There are no stakes, no goals and no light at the end of the tunnel; just a joyless, pointless slog through the dirt that in the end isn’t really worth much of anything at all.