Gangster movies are a common staple in the diet that Hollywood feeds to moviegoers. Directors like Martin Scorsese have made the gangster film their bread and butter, and have achieved acclaim in the process. Classics like The Godfather trilogy, White Heat, Scarface, and the like have made way to modern classics like Goodfellas, Road to Perdition, and The Departed. This genre consists of some of the greatest films of all time, so any new additions to it face a tough, uphill battle towards approval and recognition. Scorsese and Tarantino make it look easy; they produce smash hit after hit working in this genre. So how does a relatively newer, Aussie director fare? Does Tom Hardy in the starring role warrant your money? Does Shia LaBeouf swing on vines with CGI monkeys in this one?!
Lawless is one of those “based on a true story” movies. It’s about the infamous Bondurant brothers of Franklin County, Virginia. The film takes place in the late 1920’s, at the height of Prohibition, and the brothers are in the bootlegging business. The Bondurants, specifically Tom Hardy’s stoic Forrest, are considered indestructible due to their survival of many hardships. The youngest of the Bondurant brothers, Jack, is eager to take part in his older brothers’ business. However, the appearance of Special Agent Charlie Rakes and his subsequent desire to gain a cut of the bootlegging pie shakes up the status quo the Bondurants had enjoyed in Franklin.
Tom Hardy’s gruff and stoic Forrest Bondurant is in stark contrast to his eloquent turn as Bane in this summer’s The Dark Knight Rises. What hasn’t changed is the violent nature shared by both characters, as well as the interesting voice work. While Bane’s studious drawl has taken a life of its own in the annals of pop culture, his work in Lawless is also noteworthy. I’m not really sure how it’s noteworthy, but I feel like Hardy has mastered the ability to convey his thoughts via a measured series of grunts and mumbling. That’s worth mentioning, right? While some might find his speech a little irritating, to me it seemed in line with his rough and tumble character.
Speaking of characters, Hardy continues to impress me with the raw character work he does in each of his films. He truly is a great actor on the rise. In The Dark Knight Rises, he conveyed more with his eyes than most actors could do with their entire bodies. In Lawless, he just gives off this air of danger, of power. Forrest Bondurant is not someone you want to mess with. His soft mumbling voice belies a man who has known darkness, and can use it against others. I continue to be fascinated by the wide range of work Hardy has done recently.
Meanwhile, LaBeouf’s Jack Bondurant winds up being more of the main character of this film. While Forrest is cold, Jack is the emotional core of the film. Unfortunately, he just comes off as being a little annoying and uppity compared to his older brothers. Sure, the younger family member who’s not cut out to do what his older siblings/older relatives do for a living is a tired, tried and true character trope, but honestly, the problem here has nothing to do with LaBeouf, (who I actually think is a decent actor, despite the travesties that were Indy IV and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen). It has more to do with the way his character is written. It’s just hard to root for Jack when he does such stupid things, and expects his older brothers to bail him out. However, LaBeouf’s acting is solid, in spite of the material he had to work with. Overall I’d say give LaBeouf a shot, and don’t dismiss this movie just because he’s in it.
Guy Pearce plays Charlie Rakes, and boy do they hit you over the head telling you he’s the bad guy. Honestly, I liked Pearce’s performance here. It was a little unhinged and a lot batshit crazy, but it’s hard to deny that he played the character in the script well. Rakes revels in violence to the point of being cartoonish, and Pearce does an excellent job of showing the viewer just how insane this guy is. When he was viciously beating LaBeouf near the middle of the movie, I was stunned. Pearce portrayed someone willing to go to any lengths to prove that the Bondurants weren’t as untouchable as their legendary reputation might imply, and he gave me goosebumps in the process. Maybe that was just the insane violence, which I’ll touch on in a bit, but I’d like to give Pearce at least some of the credit.
Supporting characters were also played very well by a strong cast that consisted of Jessica Chastain (who I always confuse with Christina Hendricks), Mia Wasikowska, Jason Clarke, Dane DeHaan, and the venerable Gary Oldman. Oldman is brilliant, as always, in what is essentially a cameo appearance as big time mobster Floyd Banner. Chastain and Wasikowska play the love interests of Forrest and Jack, respectively, and while Chastain does a great job with a relatively flat character, Wasikowska is serviceable but comes off a bit bland and under-utilized. Clarke plays Howard Bondurant, but besides asserting that the elder two Bondurants are significantly more violent prone than Jack, does not contribute quite as much to the story as his brothers. Finally, Dane DeHaan holds his own alongside LaBeouf as his sidekick Cricket. DeHaan is a very talented actor who I want to see more of after watching him earlier this year in Chronicle. His brief stint in this movie only made me want to see him in bigger roles.
Despite all of this great acting and character work, Lawless’s Achilles’ heel is how uneven and underwritten the script is. So many ideas seem underutilized or underexplored, and the background-less characters come off as flat and a little difficult to care about. Charlie Rakes’s character is evil for the sake of having an evil bad guy to face the Bondurants. The Bondurants themselves don’t really come off as heroes, as they’re just as crazy-violent as Rakes. And speaking of the violence, this film is not for the faint of heart. Since this is a gangster flick, I’d say I expected the violence a bit more than say the violence found in the movie Drive. Still, though, a lot of what is portrayed in this film is in much the same vein as that movie. Admittedly, the Bondurants would seem more heroic if you knew more about them. Jack is the only one in the movie with any semblance of a character arc, and he’s just written as too whiny to truly empathize with. Forrest shows no vulnerability, as per the legend that surrounds him. While this makes for a fun performance by Hardy, Forrest doesn’t come off as anything but an incredibly stubborn badass. While that’s great in some cases, I suppose I just expected more here. Especially considering the excellent work screenwriter Nick Caves did with John Hillcoat on his western film, The Proposition. Caves seems ill-equipped to adapt the book this film is based on, and it shows as the film closes and leaves you feeling a bit underwhelmed.
What can’t be knocked, though, is Hillcoat’s direction. The performances he elicits from his cast are excellent, the set design is gorgeous, the costumes are pitch perfect for the era the story takes place in, and the production values in general are just through the roof. The film is a thing of gritty beauty, the cinematography combining with the sets to provide a truly lush setting to transport the viewer to. Even the soundtrack is spot on, and bolsters the decent but unremarkable score employed throughout the film. Hillcoat definitely knows his actors and how to make a period piece well, if nothing else.
So to answer the question implicitly posed at the beginning of this review: No, Lawless is not a modern classic in the gangster film genre. What it is is a competent but disappointing film greatly bolstered by the strength of its cast and John Hillcoat’s solid direction. If you’re a Hardy fan, he does some solid work in this movie. If you’re a fan of gangster films, then you’ll probably enjoy this but be a little disappointed that it doesn’t go any deeper than the violence that’s splattered across the surface. I’m just going to be honest, though: I only saw this movie because the closest theater playing The Master is in New York City, and there were no other decent releases this week. My backup was going to be the direct-to-DVD animated release, The Dark Knight Returns: Part 1. This is of course an animated adaptation of Frank Miller’s classic Batman graphic novel. This might be pushed back to next week, unless I decide that Dredd 3D is worth going to theaters to see. Because those slo-mo scenes look really pretty.