I’ve hit an odd roadblock in reviewing Lawless. When I saw it on Friday, I was enthralled with it. Now, just a few days later, I’m struggling to remember what I found so compelling. How do you account for such a fleeting feeling of satisfaction when evaluating a film?
Lawless is based on Matt Bondurant’s historical novel The Wettest County in the World. It tells a story of bootlegging, organized crime, and police corruption during the tail end of Prohibition. Forrest and Howard Bondurant run a moonshine racket out of the family diner. The youngest brother, Jack, wants to go for something bigger. He’s smaller, but it doesn’t mean he can’t stand up against the big city bootleggers. Jack just happens to make his move when everyone in the greater Chicago area wants a piece of the Bondurants’ racket.
I cannot fault Lawless for its authenticity. This is a period film that does not neglect the little details that create a realistic world. From the hemlines in menswear to the different fabrics available depending on location, the costumes scream realism. So does the music. It’s primarily traditional American folk, though the big church scene in the first act uses authentic Sacred Harp arrangements for added weight and character. Even the labels on the boxes you can read and the slang vocabulary are true to period.
I can’t fault the acting, either. This cast is stellar. Shia LaBeouf gives his best performance since Disturbia as the youngest Bondurant brother. Then again, this is the first time he’s had a lead in a film with actual character development since Disturbia. Give him an actual screenplay and he can light up the screen.
Then you have Tom Hardy as the oldest Bondurant brother. You might not remember a lot about Lawless when you walk out of the theater, but you won’t soon forget Forrest Bondurant. Tom Hardy fully embodies the role of a man who has convinced himself that rumor is truth and brute force trumps everything else. Forrest is one of the most unpredictable characters to appear onscreen in years because Hardy gives nothing away until it happens. It’s a brave and shocking performance that makes the film as strong as it is.
The supporting cast is good, as well, but they don’t have nearly enough to do. Both Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain play women who catch the eye of a Bondurant brother, but they’re used as plot devices more often then they’re explored as full characters. The same applies to Dane DeHaan as Cricket (a local crippled boy who knows everything about cars), Gary Oldman as big city gangster Floyd Banner, and Guy Pearce as Charlie Rakes (a crooked special detective trying to cut in on the backwoods bootlegging business). They all have scenes that are necessary to tell the story, but they don’t necessarily have enough material to work with to build memorable characters.
I believe that is the main problem with Lawless. There is nothing technically wrong with this film. The screenplay is structured well; you could set your watch to the placement of the acts and when the turns happen. The cinematography is effective, the cast is believable, and the direction is ]cohesive. Tom Hardy aside, there’s just nothing remarkable about the film.
There’s a good time to be had at Lawless. Just don’t expect some revelatory production that will make you rethink period dramas.
Thoughts on Lawless? I think, with a little trimming and a faster pace, it could have been really exciting. It’s just so even tempered that nothing really stands out on its own. What do you think? Sound off below.