If I had to give one piece of advice to anyone planning to see Lawless, it would be this: go prepared. I went in knowing very little about the movie and was mercilessly shoved into a whirl of violence and unexpectedly resonating emotion. Lawless is a movie that knows just what strings to pull with its audience and, after seeing as many movies as I have this year, it’s hard to be as emotionally invested in a movie as I was in this one. The cast (which has to be one of the best of the year) will pull you in and let you get comfortable, then BAM!, the fun begins. The violence is gory and constant, easily the most violent movie I’ve seen this year, and it was made worse because I felt like I wanted to take action protect these characters rather than sit back and watch their lives unfold on the screen. Take a map and a flashlight with you, because it’s (literally) a full-throttle ride.
The movie takes place in the cacophony of the 1920s, more specifically during the Prohibition era, a time which was apparently entirely without law outside of its alcohol restrictions, evidenced by people like Gary Oldman (who plays a small role as gun-happy smoke-face Banner) who could shoot people when and wherever they felt like. The three Bondurant brothers, Howard, Forrest, and Jack (Jason Clarke, Tom Hardy, and Shia LaBeouf respectively) make their living delivering the forbidden goods to customers in their beat up pickup truck, or whatever it was called back then. Along comes Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), who warns the brothers ta quit bootleggin’ the liquor, or at least hand over a chunk of the paycheck. Of course the Bondurants refuse (you would too if you were talking to someone as sleezy and detestable as Rakes), and this means war between the brothers and their friends, and the law.
Above all, the movie is manipulative. Its ironclad cast members, all armed with a script full of well-written characters, will invest you in the film’s gritty, all risks no rules universe. After making some questionable career choices post-Transformers (such as participating in a certain music video I won’t link here but you could find easily enough at your own risk), LaBeouf leads the movie in what is easily the strongest performance of his career. (And I’ve seen Transformers and Holes.) There are times you want to smack Jack Bondurant across his stupid little head and times you want to jump back to the 1920s and witness his life firsthand; Both telltale qualities of an excellent lead role. Even his cliché romance with preacher’s daughter Bertha (Mia Wasikowska, more commonly referred to as Alice from the 2010 slop pile Alice In Wonderland) is excellent and probably one of my favorite parts. My knee jerk reaction to the been-there-done-that ‘boy sees girl, boy wants girl, girl rejects boy, boy won’t give up’ plot line is to suppress vomit and wait for it to go away. But I’ll admit I found myself rooting for LaBeouf and Wasikowska, a duo of whom I’m not the hugest fan, by the halfway mark. I like both of them a lot more than I did before I took my seat in the theater.
Along with Clarke, the main cast includes Jessica Chastain as stripper turned waitress Maggie Beauford, and crippled but delightfully genius Cricket Pate (Dan DeHaan), two more characters who, lawless pun unintended, will steal your heart. There’s also Guy Pearce’s Agent Rakes, a character whose distilled ability to make the audience hate him is so profound that I, a self-considered sane human being, would have no regrets standing on his face or shoving him into a river. Rakes’s privileged snoot is so well acted I couldn’t blame any other cast members if they hated or generally avoided Pearce in real life. There’s gotta be some Nickelodeon Choice Award for most hated movie character or something. Just end the nominations now.
However, Tom Hardy manages to win cast member MVP, probably because he has the advantageous prerequisite of being Tom Hardy, but mostly because Forrest Bondurant is, frankly, freakin’ awesome. Tom Hardy has been in every single 2012 movie to date and shows no signs of stopping, so double congratulations to him for pulling off another fantastic role and one where we could actually see his face this time. Forrest is the Atticus Finch to Jack’s Scout. He’s a character you’ll respect by the end, and you’ll probably respect Hardy too.
The movie claims to be part of the ‘gangster’ film genre. I had no clue such a genre existed. Director John Hillcoat probably slapped the label on just to have something to call his film, because it oddly defies any genre. I’d argue the film is a drama, action and pseudo-horror movie disguised under an array of gunshots and cigar smoke. In the end this may have contributed to its ultimate flaw: it takes itself too seriously. The climax was a full-out supreme pizza loaded with uncountable meats and veggies and dripping with grease and suddenly there’s an unnecessary plate of buffalo wings on the side, when really the bulk of the movie was satisfying enough that the climax only really warranted an average pepperoni and sausage pie.
And the ending, chock full of the movie’s signature black humor, was meant to be taken lightly, but still came across as self-important, even conceited. With Lawless, Coathill was obviously gunning towards a Best Pic nom. On the way there, he got pulled over.
Lawless is a movie that knows its audience and has them eating out of the palm of its hand by the end. I just wish it hadn’t been overstuffed.