Lawless - Adequate but an Opportunity Wasted

                       Gangster classics from Hollywood in the 1930s were flooded with blood and booze, the stocks in trade of the fast-talking urban bootlegger. In those times, illegal liquor was the province of ambitious hoods fresh from the streets and a main theme for those films. The heroes of all those films wanted to get the governments of their backs, and follow their American dream, to provide liquor to masses. John Hilcoat's "Lawless" (2012) centers its story to that tradition and period. It offers sporadically involving account of bootlegging in Virginia in the early years of the Depression.

                         Lawless is adapted loosely from Matt Bondurant's 2008 novel "The Wettest County in the World," which is concerned about Matt's great-uncles' exploits in the rural Virginia liquor wars. The movie is full of half-hearted overtures and suffers from a moderate lack of focus during the final 30 minutes, but its cracking ensemble of actors, scenery and production design are the reasons to see it. 

         Lawless, set in the prohibition era, is the story of three Bondurant brothers, whose filling station and restaurant is really just a front for their successful moonshine (whiskey illegally distilled from a corn mash) operation. Howard (Jason Clarke), the eldest is a volatile and drunk veteran of the first world war. Forrest (Tom Hardy), the middle brother, is the brains and commanding leader of both business and family. Jack (Shia LaBeouf), the youngest one, is an ambitious guy but physically limited one. Jack conspires with his genius friend Cricket (Dane DeHaan) and dreams of making it big on his own. Their idol is the local gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman). 

                   The Bondurant brothers' moonshine operation is threatened when a corrupt Chicago deputy named Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) swoops into shut them down. Those who pay a hefty fee are allowed to continue bootlegging while those who don't are shut down, usually by barbaric means. The brothers, who don’t take well to outsiders moving in on their territory and dictating their business practices, refuses all the offers of Rakes, and their stubbornness instigates a war. 

                  Australian director John Hilcoat and writer Nick Cave has previously collaborated in the gristly outlaw movie, "The Proposition." Hilcoat's Proposition was strong in its convictions, whereas Lawless is fidgety and ungainly, a collection of firecracker scenes in search of a compelling story. The good things under his direction is the anti-romanticized history  in which the violence is more brutal and the characters are more deplorable. His direction never leaves out the violence. The film's violence is pitched just slightly above where you expect it to be, which keeps the audience unsteady and nervous. With the support of  cinematographer Benoit Delhomme, Hillcoat modulates to a palette dominated by muddy earth tones, with a gorgeous use of shadows, mist-wreathed forests, and snow-filled streets. 

                    Tom Hardy as Forrest simply dominates the cast. He is always towering and intense and impossible to stop watching. Through his amusing bearlike irritable grunts, he possesses a brooding, charismatic potential for violence. Jason Clarke is perfect as Howard, but his role seems unreliable or under-written. Shia LaBeouf, with the top billing, as Jack continues his effort to show that he can really do more serious roles, even though Hardy dominates the proceedings. 

                    Gary Oldman, in his cameo, as Banner is largely wasted, but he’s once again back to playing baddies, after his good-guy run of Sirius Black, Commissioner Gordon, and George Smiley. Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasiwoska as the brother's love interest also has diminished screen space and their relationship is so skeletal that it generates almost nothing along in the nature of romantic tension. At the beginning Guy Pearce's Rakes looks like the perfect opposite to the brute, macho Forrest, but his character is later turned into a rote, ludicrous villain. 

                    The movie ends as expected and there's a sense that things are drawn out too much on the way to that moment. The inevitable climax is downplayed and is not as satisfying as it might be. These flaws reduces the compulsive watchability nature of Lawless. The period setting, beautiful cinematography and top-notch acting makes up for the reasons to watch Lawless. It is an uneven mix of impressively executed sequences, and it plays more like a fable than a true historical account.


Lawless - IMDb


Haricharan Pudipeddi said...

I watched it recently and was equaaly disappointed. However, the performances superseded the naarative at one juncture

Arun Kumar said...

@Haricharan, Thanks for the comment. Yeah, the performances were great but the story and screenplay were very simple.