Synopsis: Set in Depression-era Franklin County, Virginia, a bootlegging gang is threatened by a new deputy and other authorities who want a cut of their profits.
Stars: Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Guy Pearce, Gary Oldman, Mia Wasikowska, Dane DeHaan
Director: John Hillcoat
Running Length: 115 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: At first glance, Lawless might seem to be yet another in a long string of middling crime dramas – I know that I sure felt that way while viewing the trailers. What made me most interested in this particular film was the collaboration between director Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave. Previously teaming up on the excellently dark and dangerous The Proposition, the men have scored yet again with a film that’s in tune with the past and present.
Finding the same flavor as Unforgiven, Bonnie & Clyde, and Animal Kingdom, Lawless tells a fairly straight-forward true life tale of a trio of brothers that wind up on the wrong side of a crooked justice system and eventually each other. A discourse in brotherly love is nothing new, cinematically speaking, and the relationships between the strong/silent brother (Hardy), the sensitive brother (LaBeouf), and the muscle brother (Clarke) are presented in a fairly standard way. We can predict when the scenes of the sensitive brother rising to a challenge will come as easily as we can spot when the strong/silent brother will object to how the muscle brother handles a problem. The trick to all this is how the actors and director go about presenting it.
Set during Prohibition in Virginia (but filmed in Georgia), there is an authenticity created in production design and performance that instantly snaps you into that period of time. Hillcoat has populated Lawless with a long line of gifted character actors who play on their strengths to uphold the barren tone of the film. None of the actors have a particularly modern look so it’s easy for them to slip into their costumes and backwoods twang, disappearing totally into the role. Even the normally self-aware LaBeouf trusts the material enough to let go and gives one of his better performances of his rocky career.
I was most worried going into this that LaBeouf would seem out of place with his surroundings. His film choices have mostly seemed like he accepted them for the paycheck or the chance to work with great directors (though his highly publicized trashing of Steven Spielberg didn’t earn him many friends). In Lawless, I finally felt that LaBeouf found a director that he could speak a common language with. Though on-set reports indicated he and Hardy clashed, even that worked well with the brother-brother conflict the film creates. Even if LaBeouf gets a little off track as the film progresses, there’s strong work here from a less than strong actor.
Hardy too struggles a bit with his role in later parts of the movie…but not nearly as much as he struggles with a Virginian accent. Maybe this is why his character is a man of few words but when he does speak it’s not hard to hear his native UK dialect slipping through. Bulked up for his role in The Dark Knight Rises, Hardy cuts a perfect figure as the brother with the clearest vision of what his family needs to do to survive.
Chastain bares all (literally and, I think, unnecessarily) for her role as a former burlesque dancer looking for a new start. Even playing second fiddle to the men in the film, she more than holds her own…especially in one key exchange with Hardy near the conclusion of the film. Making a big name for herself in the last few years, Chastain continues to show why she deserves accolades as the next big thing.
Clarke, DeHaan, Wasikowska, and Oldman all contribute nicely subtle supporting roles with Oldman being more of a glorified cameo than anything else. In celebrity look-alike news, Wasikowska is strikingly similar to a young Gwyneth Paltrow and DeHaan resembles Leonardo DiCaprio (something I mentioned in my review of DeHaan’s last film Chronicle).
Pearce is positively ghoulish as an eyebrowless and evil deputy that wants to control the brothers bootlegging business. It’s a brave performance because the character deteriorates physically with each violent act he perpetrates. Know this…Lawless pulls no punches in the violence department. Copious amount of blood are shed and those with a soft stomach for stabbings and throat slashings should be ready to put some blinders up.
Hillcoat and Cave (who also shows up as a freaky looking robber) keep things moving at a good pace, though the film drags a bit around the halfway mark. Some have criticized the film for taking its time or being too slow…but I say that most of this “slow” material is needed to help flesh out the characters and give more weight to the choices they make. The less patient filmgoer might not be as enveloped with this but being a fan of Hillcoat and Cave I had a pretty good idea that the rewards would be paid for being attentive.
No review of this film would be complete without speaking of the score/soundtrack that acts almost as its own character. Though they have a modern feel, the backwoods hymns and folk songs that are featured heighten the mood whenever they are employed. Miraculously, Cave also is responsible for the music so he gets extra brownie points for his haunting song selection and perfectly perfect score.
I think Lawless is arriving in theaters too early and will probably get lost in the end of summer catch up that many people are in the middle of. Had it been released in late September or mid October the film may have been better timed to capitalize on the changing of the seasons. It’s a film that’s worth seeing in the theaters and a soundtrack that deserves a place on your iPod. Those that like their crime dramas made with style and attention to detail should eat this one up.