There was a lot of buzz surrounding the Prohibition-era action flick – perhaps unfairly so – and Lawless suffered because of it. With an all-star cast consisting of Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman and Guy Pearce this gritty action flick had a lot going for it, but lack of direction kept Lawless from being a great film.
As the movie opens, we’re introduced to the Bondurant brothers – Forrest (Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (LaBeouf), successful moonshiners in Franklin County, Va., who operate with the help of their friend Cricket (Dane Dehaan, of Chronicle fame). Shortly after witnessing mobster Floyd Banner (Oldman) eliminates a business competitor, the Bondurants are visited by vicious Special Detective Charlie Rakes (Pearce), who tries to strong-arm his way into taking a cut of their profit.
The first thing that strikes me about Lawless is its down-and-dirty style of storytelling. In the first half of the movie we witness brutal beat downs involving brass knuckles, Tommy gun shootouts and some intense, unnerving knife work. The characters aren’t deep, but you know who they are and what they stand for. It might not be a dramatic masterpiece, but Lawless keeps you on the edge of your seat.
Where the wheels start to come off is around the movie’s halfway mark. Director John Hillcoat tries to force love stories into the film, as Forrest slowly falls for the ex-dancer Maggie (Jessica Chastain) and Jack courts preacher’s daughter Bertha (Mia Wasikowska). Not only do the lighthearted and often humorous moments between these lovers feel forced, but they also confuse the tone for the entire movie. After leaving the theater I couldn’t decide what the movie wanted to be about. Had Lawless been a little more decided on its approach, it might have achieved some of the lofty goals critics had set for it.
By the end of the film, it was evident that the cast had been well selected and they proved it through some solid performances. Pearce is chillingly believable as Rakes, and his ruthless tactics help push the plot forward in a positive way. It’s not enough, however, as unsure direction and the aforementioned love stories confuse the story, as well as the people watching it in the theater. Lawless is worth a watch, but not until it’s out on DVD.