The fractured fable.
Lawless is told from the mind’s-eye of a natural storyteller. This storyteller is not a novelist, screenwriter or a gifted director…more like Grandpa in a rocking chair. Many of us have had the pleasure of listening to Grandpa’s stories over the years. I’m sure we’ve thought, “These can’t possibly be accurate,” or, “Gramps probably left some stuff out.” But those legends were engrossing and as they’re passed through generations they change, they’re embellished and get bigger. Lawless is one of those stories.
The story (adapted from the novel The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant) is simple. It’s 1931 in Franklin, Virginia – right in the heart of prohibition.
The Bondurant brothers (Jack, Forrest and Howard) are bootleggers. They craft small batches of white lightning from their little slice of Appalachia and run it across county lines for a small profit. It’s a small but effective business. The oldest Bondurant Forrest (Tom Hardy) enjoys his work. He’s a simple man who is just fine with his day-to-day. Jack (Shia LeBeouf) – the youngest – has bigger aspirations.
Of course with bootlegging comes the law. At first, the Bondurant’s don’t have much trouble with the Sherriff’s of Franklin. They get their share to keep quiet and everything runs smoothly. When Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce in his most bird-like performance to date) arrives things get a little…messy. Rakes may be a lawman but he acts well above it. He throws everything at the Bondurant’s: henchman, guns, officers, knives; you name it.
Viscerally, Director John Hillcoat has crafted a knockout. Lawless does not skimp on the violence, often turning it up to gut-wrenching levels. The film isn’t really concerned with realism but Hillcoat’s washed-out visual style keeps the heightened-reality relatively grounded. That being said, the film is decidedly small in scope. Rarely did I have a sense of geography, often wondering where town was in relation to the city in relation to the county. It was often disorienting and distracted from the larger plight of this little operation.
The actors however operate quite well in this confused space. Shia LeBeouf is given the film’s best arc as the ambitious Jack Bondurant. I’ve never been a huge LeBeouf supporter and although his accent comes and goes he does imbue Jack with a wide-eyed vulnerability that I found refreshing. Jason Clarke as the middle child Howard is a very convincing drunk but isn’t given much to do beyond that. The two stand-outs were Tom Hardy and Guy Pearce. Hardy’s Forrest mostly just grunts and growls but he is so imposing as the head bootlegger. He also brings much needed levity to a very dark, grisly 2-hours. Pearce is outrageous as Charlie Rakes. He literally chews on the scenery. There are wonderfully subtle touches that he brings to the slimy deputy (no eyebrows, an impossibly funny hair cut…I could go on) that take the character to new levels.
Unfortunately, there are several more plot strings that act as filler and many great actors are caught in the wake. Both female leads, Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska, are mostly used as lifeless window dressing. For such accomplished actresses they deserved more. Gary Oldman makes a criminally brief appearance as mob boss Floyd Banner. His character gives us a brief glimpse of the world outside of Franklin but is abandoned well before the end credits.
Hillcoat’s previous film, The Road, left ample time for reflection. Here it feels like he has too much story to tell and not enough film to tell it. There are probably 30-minutes of Lawless sitting in an editing bay somewhere and that makes me sad. The film has the dressings of a masterpiece, it just leaves you wanting. It plays just like Grandpa’s old stories: an old fable that is fun to hear about but couldn’t possibly be as fantastic as he remembers.
What My Wife Thought: BLOODY but riveting. The great acting, history and surprising comic relief made up for the cover-your-eyes violence. Lawless is actually a great date movie this weekend.