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When LAWLESS works, it's great, but the Devil is in the details.
on September 16, 2012
LAWLESS, the second collaboration between Director John Hillcoat and Writer/Composer/All-Around Weird Dude Nick Cave, is a film that has just about everything working in its favor: It has a trememdous cast, some excellent and vibrant performances, some crackling scenes of dialogue and some beautiful scene composition. So why can't I get past everything that it doesn't have that it needed to put it on the same level as their first collaborative effort, an amazing and little-seen film called THE PROPOSITION?
LAWLESS, based on a book of non-fiction called "The Wettest County In The World", is based during the later years of Prohibition in Franklin County, Virginia and based around the Bondurant brothers, who became a little less than folk-heroes and a little more than outlaws during those years. They, like many of the families in Franklin County, are Moonshiners and they're pretty good at it. The eldest, Howard (Jason Clarke, most recognizable for his recent turn in the excellent but short-lived THE CHICAGO CODE) is a strong-armed but dull-witted man who samples a little too much of his own product. The middle child is Forrest (Tom Hardy, best known for just about every other film in the last two years), who is something of a legend amongst the community already for being "immortal", by surviving the illness that killed their parents when he was just a boy. Jack (Shia LaBeouf, discarding most of his annoying mannerisms here) is "the runt of the litter", skinny and scared, but brainy and ambitious and anxious to prove his worth in the family business to Forrest who really runs the show. They are put upon by a Federal agent or "Special Deputy" named Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce, who also starred in THE PROPOSITION) who is looking not to clean things up Eliot Ness style, but looking to make a buck by shaking down the locals for protection money. This leads the local law to side, at least for a while, with Rakes, as Jack and his best friend Cricket (Dane Dehaan) look to sell their goods to a big-time gangster (Gary Oldman) and also romance a young preacher's daughter (Mia Wasikowska). Another unusual visitor comes to town in the visage of Maggie (Jessica Chastain), looking to escape the hustle of the big city and soon finds herself caring for Forrest in a way she never would have expected.
The film's biggest strength is also one of its main failings, and that's the setting. The incredibly rural setting of a Prohibition-era drama is something that is not seen very often, because the majority of them take place in the big cities (although a film like Sam Mendes' ROAD TO PERDITION is partially set in the boonies), and that's something that a director like Hillcoat and a writer like Cave would feel like they would want to immerse the viewer into that world, but we only catch glimpses. It seems like the setting is more incidental rather than a necessary part of the storytelling. Everyone in it is good with really three stand-out performances: Tom Hardy is excellent as the soft-spoken but deadly Forrest who acts as the patriarch for his brothers; Guy Pearce is amazing and chameleon-like as the needlessly sadistic and sweet-scented Rakes who is trying to be the city gent, but is too brutal and cruel to ever be accepted as such. Every scene of his drips with menace. Also standing out here is Dane Dehaan (wonderful in the brilliant little-seen gem CHRONICLE) as Cricket, the resident mechanical genius and hero-worshipping child whose vulnerability is extended beyond that of a cliche. LaBoeuf takes his time with his character in building it and turns in a very commendable performance in easliy his most complex role yet. The rest of the cast work best with what they have but what they have isn't much. Mia Wasikowska has a wonderful scene with LaBoeuf as he takes her out for a drive, but that's really the extent of her character as something for the young Jack to long for. Jason Clarke is the most short-changed of the Bondurants here, being portrayed as a drunk and a thug, but little else. Gary Oldman has little more than a cameo in this film, and from a completely subjective point of view, I wanted more because there was something there to really allow for him to have fun and cut loose like we had seen in years past. Sadly the one player here that is the most marginalized is Jessica Chastain. She's an actress that will undoubtedly have an Oscar in her hand before the decade is out, and she does some really good work here, but her character of Maggie is very much the weary and damaged madonna/whore for Forrest, and very little else.
Another real problem is the pacing of the film. It's not that it's uneven; it's that it's too fast. This film moves along at such a brisk pace that at its little over 100-minute runtime seems too brief for a film of this type. I felt like I was being rushed out of the theater rather than being invited in to experience something unusual and lyrical, like Hillcoat and Cave's THE PROPOSITION. That was a film that took the Western out of the "Old West" and placed it in Austrailia's Outback, and it invited the viewer to really soak in all the elements of the environment the film was set in, which were strange and wonderful and terrible. This is honestly the first time in a while where I felt that a longer runtime would have benefitted the film, particularly from a character standpoint.
LAWLESS, while being beautiful to look at and well-performed, is sadly lacking heart and soul that could have easily elevated this film to greater heights. But in all fairness, when LAWLESS works, it works really well, and that does happen slightly more often than not.