Release Date: September 7th, 2012
Director: John Hillcoat
Starring: Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Guy Pearce, Jason Clarke
Oh, Lawless. You could have been fantastic. Let me paint a word picture of the film for the unfamiliar: bootleggers, moonshine, classic cars, sheriffs, deputies and outlaws, set within a screenplay penned by Nick Cave, starring a slew of recognisable talent and directed by John Hillcoat (The Proposition, The Road), who is often regarded for his impressive visual style and effective use of violence. That’s what Lawless looks like on paper, and for all intents and purposes the film should have been one of the more promising releases of 2012. Unfortunately, while there are brief flashes where Lawless almost makes good on its premise, the majority of the film falls short of being a must-see blockbuster.
I think it is worth addressing the elephant in the room up front. Yes, Even Stevens alumni Shia LaBeouf stars as one of the leading roles in the film. And you know what? He was absolutely fine. One of the main issues I have had with LaBeouf’s cinematic ventures in the past has had nothing to do with the performances he gives, but instead with the roles he is often (mis)cast in. I have never been able to take him seriously as the leading action man, nor as a corrupt Wall Street investment trader, but in Lawless he is completely believable as Jack Bondurant — the youngest of three, full of reckless ambition and trying to earn the respect of his siblings Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke).
The brothers brew their own brand of moonshine alcohol and distribute it across Franklin County, Virginia during prohibition-era America. It’s a dangerous pastime which comes under threat as special agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) enters the area to clean up the county of the illegal trading. As a villain, Rakes comes across as a total caricature of Bond-like proportions – his perfectly-parted hair, pristine aesthetic and fastidious nature, contrasting with tendencies of extreme violence, has been done to death before. Guy Pearce performs the part well enough, but he felt out of place and I could not help but feel I had seen this particular brand of villainy one too many times.
Speaking of caricatures, Tom Hardy’s performance as the “immortal” Forrest Bondurant seems to be equal parts magnetic and laughable. I found myself looking forward to his appearances on screen more often than not — chewing the scenery, lumbering around with a southern drawl, intimidatingly quiet and almost always in control of every violent or dangerous situation he finds himself in. But this generic, heroic role is punctuated by cheap laughs at his social awkwardness around any situation which does not involve potentially taking a knuckleduster to someone’s throat. It’s a lazy joke which, while funny the first or second time, is reiterated more than it probably needs to be.
The film looks terrific — there is a great sepia palette used throughout, action scenes are well-executed and the violence found in film is made use of very economically, heightening its effectiveness. There are some (albeit, very few) scenes that are genuinely shocking and come out of nowhere which was refreshing to see as much of the film feels recycled — a light-hearted romance with the daughter of the reverend? Check. A mysterious woman who runs away from the city and may not be everything she says she is? Yup! I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated at the sheer number of clichés the film manages to hit before the credits roll.
Lawless is not a terrible film, it just doesn’t happen to be a particularly great one either. There is nothing nuanced or interesting about the plot or its band of cookie-cutter heroes and villains, which is a shame given how much potential there is to be found in both the cast and the setting of the film. It feels less like a film and more of a genre exercise, hitting all the required notes it has to with a few flourishes before bowing out. Safe, and uninspired.