Believe it or not, I do hate feeling as though I’m harping on an actor. (This isn’t to say I don’t enjoy it when it’s obviously necessary, but I digress …) Some actors show great promise when they’re young, and, as they age, they’re rewarded with material that, sadly, might be beneath them and their skills. In other instances, the material may be so horribly written that it’s hard to accept any measure of theatrical skill could’ve saved it. However, in some noticeable cases, an actor is blessed with the reputation of a master thespian despite the fact that no series of performances warrants the praise. I tend to think Shia LaBeouf falls into this last category – it’s not to imply he’s untalented but rather to say I’ve only seen middling performances (at best) from the man – and LAWLESS puts him in yet another picture that possibly may’ve benefitted from some fresh blood as a leading man instead of an established box office name. (So sue me!)
(NOTE: the following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and character. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last paragraph for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Prohibition is the law of the land, and, in Franklyn County, Virginia, nobody was as ‘lawless’ (see how that works?) as the Bondurant brothers: Forrest (played by Tom Hardy), Howard (rising star Jason Clarke), and Jack (LaBeouf). In 1931, when the law started catching up with bootleggers if for no other purpose than to get a piece of their action, it was the Bondurants who held out against the corrupt system, preferring to keep their business (and their earnings) to themselves. This is no small way helped turn Franklyn into the wettest county in the world (the very name of the book upon which this screenplay was based). When crooked officers tried to shut them down, the brothers fought back, tooth and nail.
As for the rest of the story?
Meh. It’s all a bit nebulous as incidents that may’ve been based on real history play out more like structured character ‘beats’ than they do a comfortable narrative. Jack is the runt of the litter – he’s clearly only half as rough and rugged as his brothers Howard and Forrest (both are rumored to be indestructible if not immortal by locals), and he takes the brunt of it when Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce in a weird turn of face) comes down hard on the family. He’s beaten and kicked around solidly for much of the film, so it only stands to reason that, come the conclusion, he’d go all ‘Billy Jack’ on the lawman. While that may be based on a true account of the affair, it ends up feeling mostly manufactured here.
Also, it didn’t help matters that LaBeouf ended up being shackled with a hackneyed Southern accent. He does the best he can with the lines, but, having seen him in so many big budget productions, so much of his dialect here sounded really inauthentic in the bad-community-theatre kind of way. Hardy was able to pull it off mostly because he had so little to say (Clarke similarly only had a handful of scenes of extended dialogue). Again, it’s a middling performance not all that believable based on circumstances, which is why I said in the onset that I don’t want to feel as though I’m piling on LaBeouf given the fact that he’s appeared in two out of three TRANSFORMERS films that were pretty awful as well as almost single-handedly destroying every good memory I have of an INDIANA JONES motion picture.
Again, if my bias is showing, you’ll have to forgive me. Like most of you, I take my fascination with flicks very seriously – serious enough to write about them increasingly online – and I try hard to not be prejudiced with acting talent. I think LaBeouf’s a diamond-in-the-rough probably a few years more in the making; I think he was wrong for this movie; but I don’t hate his work.
Jessica Chastain makes a nice turn here as Maggie Beauford, a Chicago dancer who self-deported to Virginia for quieter spaces. Unfortunately, she’s relegated to secondary status here. I would’ve loved to have seen more of her, but, alas, the story as scripted simply didn’t allow for it.
Lastly, let me make a plug here for more films of this nature (those based on historical events). In particular, I’ve always been fascinated with America’s greatest failed social experiment, Prohibition. I’ve read plenty of books on the subject – it fascinates me – and LAWLESS does an admirable job showing us today what it was like ‘back in the day.’ It these elements I wish we were shown more of – a miniseries much like the recent HATFIELDS AND MCCOYS would be stellar, and even the dry (pardon the pun) PBS documentary PROHIBITION (thank you, Ken Burns) comes to mind – I think LAWLESS would’ve had a chance at finding a bigger audience.
LAWLESS is produced by Benaroya Pictures, FilmNation Entertainment, Annapurna Pictures, Blum Hanson Allen Films, Pie Films Inc., Red Wagon Productions, and Yucaipa Films. DVD distribution appears to have been handled through Anchor Bay. As for the technical specifications, this is a big Hollywood production; as such, it all looks and sounds pretty solid, except for a few of Hardy’s lines which were (I believe) deliberately hard to understand as his character tended to be fairly soft-spoken as well as a man of few words.
RECOMMENDED. Knowing what I know of Prohibition, I’d suspect that there’s an awful lot more to this story than what was delivered. At best, the script services the need to tell a story – it sets up each of these characters with the barest of bones, presents a catalyst for drama, and then delivers said climax with albeit predictable results – but I can’t help but wonder what more there is to the story that couldn’t fit inside the traditional two-hour package. LaBeouf continues to get starring roles despite his lack of presence – I’d have spent more time with Hardy’s underplayed (and underexplored) Forrest Bondurant and Clarke’s Howard Bondurant; his character seemed so circumstantial here, that I’m not sure what more he could’ve added with his limited and overrated skills, but it is what it is.
Star Rating: Lawless is a triumph of tone and setting, the gritty underworld of prohibition-era Virginia examined with meticulous and sometimes painful detail. This is plainly visible not just in the sets, the costumes, the lighting, the diction, and the rural locations, but also in its depiction of violence, which could arguably put it on the same shelf as the works of Peckinpah, Coppola, Penn, and Scorsese. Director John Hillcoat does not spare the audience … more
Prohibition, gangsters, brothers, Virginia, moonshine, a sadistic lawman, violence, lust, love and family...That's some of the things you'll find in 'Lawless' directed by John Hillcoat ('The Road') and written by songwriter/musician, Nick Cave (The Proposition), based on Matt Bondurant's book 'The Wettest County in the World' which is his fictionalized account of his family. The film tells the story of the infamous … more