By Jenny Lichtenwalter |
At first glance, “Lawless” appears to be a film with something to say. Directed with confidence and lyricism, it reaches to convey something of importance to its audience. However, despite its intentions and the quality of production, “Lawless” falls short of the poetic epic it yearns to be.
Based on the non-fiction book by Matt Bondurant, “The Wettest County in the World”, “Lawless” tells the tale of the three bootlegging Bondurant brothers, who run a lucrative moonshine business in the rural woods of Franklin County, Va. The film focuses on the youngest Bondurant, Jack (Shia LaBeouf), as he strives for a more significant role in the illegal operation run by his older brothers Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke).
While LaBeouf has the most screen time in Lawless, he is listless, unconvincing and utterly overshadowed by his co-stars. In all honesty, Jaden Smith would make a more believable bootlegger than LaBeouf. On the other hand, Hardy is the exact opposite of LaBeouf. He is completely convincing as Forrest and dominates the screen. Even when he doesn’t speak, Hardy seems to pulsate with power, authority and charisma.
For a while, the Bondurants keep the peace by bribing the local law enforcement with their product. All is well in Franklin County until a flamboyant and brutal law enforcement agent, Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), arrives on the scene to put a stop to the steady supply of moonshine flowing from the foothill and into the cities. The Bondurants continue to run their business despite the ruthless tactics Rakes employs to put a stop to their business. As the plot unfolds further, it becomes more predictable and conventional, yet it unfolds in a rather jerky and rickety fashion. The film meanders along for more than 90 minutes before it turns up the heat and abruptly reaches its disorienting and violent climax.
Violence is at the heart of “Lawless”. Characters beat, stab, shoot and even tar one another. Yet, despite the brutality, “Lawless” is a surprisingly gorgeous film as well. Australian director John Hillcoat has a keen eye for the unruly beauty of the Appalachian region. (This) setting is often juxtaposed with the film’s gruesome scenes, most of which unfold in front of the most picturesque backgrounds. Often, an idyllic and quaint scene will quickly dissolve into a bloody one with little warning.
With “Lawless” it seems that Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave are trying to make a statement about the nature of man. At one point, Hardy delivers a monologue explaining that men’s brutal capabilities are what make them different from one another. In the end, “Lawless” is a film concerned with only three things: guns, guts and moonshine. The film’s grisly instances are utilized more as a means to entertain, rather than as a rhetorical strategy to convey anything meaningful.
The film is a well-acted and beautifully directed affair. In fact, “Lawless’” production is of such a high order that it seems a waste of such accomplished filmmaking. At the very least, the talents of Tom Hardy and John Hillcoat belong to a film that has something on its mind more pressing than guns, guts and moonshine.