Released in 2012, certified UK-18. Reviewed on 01 Jan 2013 by Scott Morris
Lawless image

Lawless cuts quite a tempting trailer, I’ll give it that. Gary Oldman swanning around with a tommy gun? Sold. And given that the last John Hillcoat / Nick Cave temp-up produced the pleasing The Proposition, there was every reason to look forward to this film. Well, not every reason, I suppose. There was no reason to hope for a robotic monkey, for example. It wouldn’t fit with the genre. But there were a number of good, reasonable reasons to expect that this wouldn’t be a pointless two hour snoozeathon, is what I’m trying to get across. I’m not sure why I thought a side-track about robotic monkeys would help my case. I’ve not been sleeping well lately.

Anyway, Lawless plunges us into Prohibition era Virginia, with the Bondurant brothers busy bootlegging up some moonshine for selling on the black market. Elder brothers Howard (Jason Clarke) and Forrest (Tom Hardy) take care of business, leaving youngest Jack (Shia LaBeouf) minding the gas station / diner that’s the ‘legitimate businessman’ front for their organisation. Presumably to protect Jack from becoming too involved in their life of crime, and also because he’s a total pansy.

Things pick up, at least in theory, when The Law arrives with a view to shutting down the moonshine trade. Well, actually with a view to take a hefty cut of the profits, being as the cops are coming from Chicago, the only police force more corrupt than Gotham City P.D. Chief law dude and your nominated bad guy of the piece is Guy Pearce’s Charlie Rakes, who I assume was promoted through the ranks due to his astonishing weirdness.

Thus runs the conflict, with the other bootleggers in the area buckling and giving in to Rakes ‘n’ Co’s extortion racket, leaving the Bondurants the only holdout. Rakes’s goons send a ‘message’ to the Bondurants, who respond in kind, sparking a circle of violence than escalates until we wind up with pitched shootouts between lines of cops and moonshiners.

It might have the conflict element sown up, but what Lawless can’t do is translate this into any sort of drama. There’s little reason to empathise with any of our moonshinin’ anti-heroes, with Howard largely characterised as a one dimensional violent drunk, Jack a whiny braggart and Forrest a laconic wannabe patriarch with nary a likable character trait to rub between them, apart perhaps from family loyalty. Jack and Howard even get largely disposable love interests to attempt to humanise them, in the shape of Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain, but in the end both largely seem present to leverage into ‘damsel in distress’ plot devices to spur another excuse for the conflicted parties inflict violence on each other.

Inflicting violence might be distasteful, but at least carries the potential to be interesting. Even here, Lawless falls down. While it shows the horrible consequences of getting caught in a turf war, showing the results of, say, cutting someone’s throat in a way that’s missing from most contemporary movies, but also without glamorising it, it also rather undercuts itself by making the Bondurants basically impossible to kill unless you chop off their heads and limbs and bury them in different states.

The other side of the conflict doesn’t fare any better in the characterisation stakes. While Charlie Rakes is certainly unlikable, he becomes so in ways that make him annoying to watch rather than becoming someone you’d like to see get their comeuppance. If you weren’t sold on the Bondurants as rounded characters, wait until you get a load of Rakes’ puzzling mix of weird, occasionally mutually exclusive character flaws and weak motivation.

I suppose it says a lot that the current IMDB ‘people who like this also liked’ gizmo is currently pointing folks to Animal Kingdom, because that was a boring, drawn-out slice of violent nothing too. I’m not one to demand that all films have ‘a point’ as it were, or a surfeit of originality, or genre-redefining whatevers, as long as they’re enjoyable. Lawless fails on that most vital of metrics – there’s just nothing and no one to take an interest in.

It’s not all negative, by any means. I might not like the characters, but the portrayal of them is handled as well as I can imagine anyone be capable of across the entire cast. The cinematography and the more mechanical aspects of direction are never less than competent and often much better. However there’s nothing for any of these elements to service. The characters are unlikeable and underwritten, the plot is barely present and while it seems, at times, to be grasping towards some greater meta-point about the nature of conflict it never takes hold of it, washing away like tears in rain.

Ad-libbed, apparently. Good ol’ Rutger. And the worst thing about it is that you really get all of the Oldman/tommygun action in the trailer, and he’s only in the film for about three minutes anyway. Shockaroonie. Give it a miss.

John Hillcoat
Cast list:
Shia LaBeouf (Jack Bondurant)
Tom Hardy (Forrest Bondurant)
Jason Clarke (Howard Bondurant)
Guy Pearce (Charlie Rakes)
Jessica Chastain (Maggie Beauford)
Mia Wasikowska (Bertha Minnix)
Dane DeHaan (Cricket Pate)