Lawless (2012)

18 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Lawless” is a mixed bag. It’s well-made and well-acted, but there seems to be something that’s bringing it down. That “something” is possibly the trying-too-hard syndrome. To make this film about violent and ignorant people a more mainstream project than to be expected from the Weinstein Company doesn’t entire work in the film’s favor. Unfortunately, I can only praise the acting and cinematography, while the rest of the material doesn’t do much to support them.

“Lawless” is a gangster film based on the story of the Bondurant brothers, who sold moonshine in Franklin County, Virginia, during Prohibition in the United States. (How much is based on fact, I’m not entirely sure.) The brothers—timid Jack (Shia LaBeouf), tough Forrest (Tom Hardy), and manic Howard (Jason Clarke)—are seen as the best, most prominently respected bootleggers around. They make great moonshine, using their bar for their activities, with help from Forrest’s lover Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain) and Jack’s enthusiastic best friend Cricket (Dane DeHaan, “Chronicle”).

Enter Special Agent Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce), a slimy, smarmy Chicago federal agent. He’s working with the local sheriff to attempt to shut them down…or at least, that’s what I think he wants to do. I say that because this guy Rakes is such a cartoonishly evil bad guy, which his sadistic persona and oily appearance (he’s ridiculously well-dressed, with his hair slicked back as well) certainly don’t do him justice for. There’s no motive with this guy; no dramatic purpose. This is one of the problems with the movie—a lot of the action scenes ride with this character, the antagonist, and most of them don’t work because they’re not amounting to much, from a dramatic standpoint.

Also, I’m wondering why Rakes wasn’t shot early into the proceedings, but these movies mainly require him to live to see the climax. And speaking of certain/uncertain death, don’t tell me you’re not able to guess the fate of the young, enthusiastic, innocent, jittery Cricket the moment he runs on screen for the first time. Audiences love him, but those who have seen many other movies like this will know that he’s a dead man walking.

The real reason to see “Lawless” is the acting. Aside from Shia LaBeouf providing a likable lead character (proving once again that he can be a credible, appealing actor), Jason Clarke being suitably maniacal, and Gary Oldman in a small role as a Chicago gangster, the real standouts are Tom Hardy as Forrest and Jessica Chastain as Maggie. Hardy is charismatic and delivers a solid, strong screen presence—I can even forgive the strange scene in which his throat is cut open and he lives long enough to crawl to the hospital and be treated, because Hardy makes it believable somehow. Jessica Chastain, whom I’m still convinced is an angel, is as great as expected, and has her sexiest role to date (she’s even topless at one point), playing an exotic dancer from the city who comes to the country to get away from the violence she gets herself into after the brothers mess with Rakes. Guy Pearce…well, he just does what he’s required to do as Rakes.

There is a great deal of violence in “Lawless,” as you’d expect from an American gangster film. Things get pretty vicious, particularly near the end as the battle lines are crossed. Those scenes actually strike the right note of tension that this fable (if you will) requires. But before that, like I said, the action scenes may have the grit, but they don’t bring the interesting moral dilemmas that something like the remake of “True Grit” was able to deliver, by comparison. It’s just set out like this—the illegal bootleggers (innocent, young Jack and tough, heart-of-gold Forrest) are good; the man trying to do the right thing (the over-the-top villainous Rakes) is bad. And there are some gangsters thrown in for measure (notice I didn’t say “good” measure). “Lawless” is not flawless, I’m sad to say.

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