The end of summer movie season. The last of summer 2012 releases.
Lawless is a very interesting film, intriguing even from start to finish. It is based on the true story (or more of a book called Wettest County in the World) and deals with bootlegging in Franklin, Virginia during the prohibition. Given the theme and the setting one can walk into the movie expecting things to get dark, and from the trailer it surely seems that way.
The movie is told from the point of view of the youngest of three Bondurant brothers, Jack. He is, as expected the weakest and the most doubted one. As the movie progresses Jack will try to prove himself to his two brothers, the post war troubled Howard and the local legend Forrest. As expected, the law will be involved as well, but unlike most other prohibition movies which glamorize the 30s gangster lifestyle, in this case the law, in the form of almost cartoonish Guy Pearce is more bent than the actual brothers.
The story takes a few rather predictable turns, but paces itself well, keeping you engaged with the narrative throughout. It is very level and it doesn’t feel forced or overstays its welcome. Throughout the film you will be entertained by a very cohesive narrative. John Hillcoat, no stranger to directing dark material (known for The Road and the Proposition) handles the screenplay well, not afraid to go deeper into the dark with it than some may have. That is also helped by the presence of Nick Cave (also written the Proposition). Where the movie lets you down is the final payout. It keeps ratcheting itself up for this dark end, the showdown where the hero comes out worse for wear but alive. In the case of Lawless however, it ends rather with a whimper, not particularly a bang. It is still a very strong plot, even though it gets let down by going easy in the final minutes (now, I am not familiar with the novel, so perhaps things ended like that).
The performances are solid throughout, but the true star of this movie (despite advertising trying to tell you otherwise) is Tom Hardy. Fresh off his Dark Knight Rises success, he is back to dazzle again as the hard-boiled, but quiet Forrest Bondurant. He controls the shot every time he is on screen with his presence, displaying a similar demeanor he has in Bronson. Hardy has really matured as an actor in the past few years, and is ready for more lead roles, and this movie proves it (if TDKR didn’t already for all of you).
The other cast do their jobs well, Jessica Chastain keeps accumulating more and more great performances under her belt with this one. She really becomes the medium for the audience through the film, and though with not as much screen time, she becomes more relate-able than Jack. Gary Oldman manages to steal a few scenes that he is in, with a usually superb performance. He is not given much to do throughout the course of the story, but however little time he has on screen it is clear that he is at the top of his craft to this day and reminds you why he was such a great portrayer of villains back in the day (check out Leon: The Professional if you need more proof).
Everyone else delivers solid outings, even though I found Guy Pearce’s Special Deputy Charlie Rakes to be overly cartoonish, and missing some eyebrows to boot. He did feel menacing and at times scary, but during some scenes all he as missing is a thin, protruding mustache to twirl on during dialogue. The performances was over the top and while it did help the narrative through in a few places, a more level headed approach may have contributed to a more menacing adversary. As it were, he simply remained inhuman and repulsive.
The story itself does suffer from over reliance on it’s lead man where the narrative and cast were suited to a more ensemble performance and screen-time distribution. The parts that deal with Jack’s (Shia LaBeouf’s) coming of age as a man and a dopey love story with the local daughter of a preacher played by Mia Wasikowska. Jack works extremely hard to free himself from the shadow of his mythical brother figures and become a man in his own right, maybe like his idol, gangster Floyd Banner (Oldman). The movie gets predictable around these parts as Jack does all of the common mistakes we’ve seen so far, living too large too fast and even getting a little to trustworthy with his love interest. This side of the story simply falls short of any emotional impact and afterthought. LaBeouf does shine, finally free of his Transformers role, when it comes down the to story not affected by the dopey love. He really sells the frustration, despair and then anger of someone in his situation.
The movies big romantic and emotional impact does still come through, in large part due to the incredible chemistry between Hardy and Chastain. Unlike the LeBoeuf and Wasikowska drama, this particular story feels tragic from the start and pulls all of the right strings. As always Hardy steals every scene with his ability to convey so much emotion with so little effort or action.
The movie is very beautifully shot, Benoît Delhomme once again proves his worth as cinematographer. The spanning vistas of Franklin county are as much stars in some shots as the actors themselves. Still, it feels like the movie does miss focus sometimes, not giving enough due to the talented cast and focusing too much on one man’s story. In the world of brothers, it is a big mistake to give this much time to just the one of them. It is still a very solid release to cap off the summer and there is enough here to warrant a full price ticket out of the film, if only to see Hardy rob everyone in his scenes blind yet again.