Upon first seeing the trailer for Lawless, I rolled my eyes some and groaned a little. I knew what was coming to a certain extent, being familiar with the work of director John Hillcoat and taking a peek at his next project at IMDB. Hillcoat’s stern, oddball, Australian western, 2005’s The Proposition, was simple and bloody with nary a frame of film gone to waste. I must admit that I had no good reason to skip out on his next feature, 2009’s The road, other than the fact that after I saw the trailer, I just wasn’t feeling it.
Can’t say I was feeling it with the trailer for Lawless either. While the accents portrayed aren’t the worst pieces of shit to grace celluloid, they come at you quickly and out of context, and by the time Guy Pierce and his..get up.. appear at around the 1:30 mark, I checked out. There was still a part of me intrigued enough to want to see a movie that features the always interesting Gary Oldman, there was a part of me that wanted to give the man who directed The Proposition the time of day, and as I have more Nick Cave albums and concert ticket stubs than I care to admit to, there was certainly a part of me that just had to see how his influence played out in this movie, even if it means tolerating another grating performance by Shia LaBeouf .
Lawless is the fictionalized account of the 2008 novel The Wettest County in the World, the story of three prohibition era brothers, the Bondurants, who made a living bootlegging moonshine. The novel itself was written by Matt Bondurant, grandson of LaBeof’s character Jack Bondurant. It’s important to keep in mind that Matt Bondurant wrote a novel, and not a biography or a work of historical fact. There are facts, sure, and it’s based on a true story, for certain, but what you’re seeing on the screen is a dramatized version of what is proposed to be a fictional account based on a true story.
It is one smooth piece of business let me tell you. Tom Hardy plays the eldest Bondurant brother, Forrest, who the locals say is invincible, and as the story goes along you see he is composed of equal parts luck and extraordinary toughness. Those elements come with there fair share of gruffness as well, as Forrest is not only a man of few words, but a man whose words aren’t exactly recognizable. Howard Bondurant is the middle brother and the ass kicker of the bunch, played by Jason Clarke who hits the right notes with what he is given. The character has his moments, just not on the scale of the other two Bondurant brothers that are played by more prominent actors. Overall, the lack of big moments by this character help him act as the glue between Howard and Jack.
The moonshining business is going good as local law enforcement looks the other way, until the arrival of a Chicago special deputy named Howard Rakes played by Guy Pearce. Guy seems to be channeling the early work of Gary Oldman with an accent and mannerisms that aren’t quite over the top, but certainly have an aftertaste to them. I’m not the first reviewer to take notice of what Guy Pearce is doing here, but I will say that not only does it work on several levels, it’s also not even close to the repetitive bombastic villain performances you see in the majority of Hollywood style releases. If you think I’m going to see whatever it is that Mark Wahlberg and his Bunch of Funky Assholes are serving up in in Contraband, you are at the wrong blog, but I can wholeheartedly guarantee you that whatever bad guy action is going on up in that piece is irritatingly over the top. I also don’t spend a lot of time immersing myself in the filmography of Jason Statham, but I’m pretty sure that any one of those movies is going to feature a grinning, wide eyed hack whose inspirations are some sort of demented combination of Stephen Dorf and Daniel Baldwin. So by comparison, the exotic content that Guy Pearce gives us here is nothing to complain about.
It is curious as to how a Chicago special deputy would end up checking out the action in rural Virginia. That is one aspect of the movie that is never explained at 100%. Is he a federal marshall, or are we to assume that this being the time of Al Capones reign in Chicago, that Howard Rakes is just legit enough to be considered law enforcement while being attached to Capone’s corrupt payroll? I was leaning toward’s the latter with my assumption, and, if I had been in the shoes of the Bondurants I would have either payed the money or shot Rakes in the head upon first site, but that wouldn’t have made for an entertaining story at all.
The Bondurants play ignorant to the demands of Howard Rakes, and Howard Rakes plays ignorant to the way things are done in hillbilly country and each others actions escalate. When Jack Bondurant is getting a physical beat down from Howard Rakes, or an emotional beat down from his more experienced brothers, he is wooing the town preacher’s daughter, played by the elegant and lovely Mia Wasikowska. I like Mia Wasikowska, she is is quality goods. Meanwhile Forrest Bondurant is playing hard to get with the new girl in town, the very urban Maggie. Maggie has spent some time in seedy joints, but she is not a “broad”, she just knows how to handle herself. Howard Rakes may be short sided in some areas, but he knows his business, he works the angles, exploits what he can, and antagonizes who he pleases. Guy Pearce is effective without taking over the movie. Gary Oldman shows up in a few scenes as a seasoned gangster from another town, with Noah Taylor ( see our review of Red, White, and Blue) as his right hand man. It’s a solid performance, and Oldman leaves you wanting more. His character is sort of a catalyst but I won’t get too deep into the ins and the outs of it so as it is not to spoil anything.
The two biggest reasons that I had apprehensions for this film were the accents and the presence of Shia LaBeouf. Neither is any sort of problem to the viewing experience. I’m guessing that the accents came off as jarring in the trailer due to the lack of context and the fast paced way that trailers move. Some executive somewhere may want to take into consideration that not every movie can have a a trailer by the numbers. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Shia has range with his performance here, but he does go a good job of proving that he is at least competent at acting. It was great not to see a jittery, coked up, fake testosterone laden performance. I think his flaws were hidden well in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street Money Never Sleeps, while at the same time the things that we all hate the most about Shia were put on display at the right time in terms of what his character was expected to do in that movie. Here he gives a subdued performance as his character progresses in many different ways. So, he gets mini props for not ruining the whole show here, but I wouldn’t give him the benefit of the doubt going forward, I would still tread very carefully.
Lawless isn’t as long as it could have been, and it’s a very mature film. While it may have a flaw or two, the story, characters, acting, cinematography, and direction are all better than can be expected from a significant Hollywood production. Studios get it wrong so often that when they get it right it should be duly noted. The soundtrack even has just the right touch to it, with the aged voice of Levon Helm covering Velvet Undergound’s White Light.
Lawless isn’t great, but it give a chance and you will see that it is very good.