There is nothing not to like about the formula that writing partners, John Hillcoat and Nick Cave have followed, in creating their prohibition era tale of moonshine whisky running, set in the woody backwaters of West Virginia. Yet, somehow what appears on screen misses fulfilling the epic status that it should. The story of three Brothers as outlaws alone brings with it a readymade, interesting dynamic of characters; from fresh faced baby brother anxious to prove himself, through to the understated, grizzly, alpha male, elder brother protecting the family business. The film successfully questions the credibility over the notion of the criminal folk hero, and is arrestingly depicted with impressive cinematography and solid acting. Yet, somehow Lawless is unsettled and confused, with powerful scenes stunningly shot, left grasping for a captivating story in which to fit.
The film tells the tale of the Bondurant brothers, illegal moonshine whisky runners in the Appalachian foothills. Their comfortable law-evading existence is suddenly disrupted with incoming threats from both, the Chicago mob and the Chicago police force. Shia LaBeouf plays baby brother Jack, whose growth from gutless wimp to wannabe mobster loosely shoulders the core storyline of the piece. Tom Hardy’s middle brother Forrest, heads up the business and uses physicality, vocal gravitas and the use of violence to command authority. The eldest Bondurant Howard played by Jason Clarke, is still shell-shocked from WWI, unreliable and overly reliant on the whisky. Clarke impresses when on screen however, there is not enough dialogue or screen time for this character to truly reach his potential.
Jessica Chastain’s token dame provides some attention grabbing moments as the eye candy with feistiness, inexplicably starting a relationship with Tom Hardy’s Forrest providing Hillcoat with another ‘almost’ storyline to squander. Gary Oldman provides a painfully brief, but faultless turn as ultra-violent city mobster Floyd Banner, harking back to the pre Tinker Tailor grit and fierceness he is able to muster. However, the true villain comes in the form of Guy Pearce’s sinister Chicago Special Agent Charlie Rakes, his effeminate and asexual acidity providing a good contrast to Hardy’s ultra-macho strong silent vibe. Both arrive at the same level of extreme violence via polar opposite approaches; yet overall Pearce’s prissy policeman comes across as over the top and fanatical, when set against the coarse and grainy nature of the rest of the story. There is a truly wide array of characters created by Hillcoat but too many of them are either underwritten or squandered. Hardy and Oldman provide the two standout performances, effortlessly commanding attention whenever they are on screen, however, the film’s lead LaBeouf doesn’t quite manage to muster the weight needed to carry such a performance, but nonetheless provides a likeable hero.
The word that seems to attach itself to Lawless is ‘almost’. The cinematography is unfailingly stunning – watch out for the image of the hilly woodland lit up like a Christmas tree by the twinkling lights of flaming illegal liquor stills. Yet, Lawless is still a film with an identity crisis; as it seems that John Hillcoat cannot decide whether or not to devote the film wholly to the mobster genre and go fully tommy gun and pinstripe suit, or to go down to the gritty, truthful reality of the story. Either way we are left having seen stunningly shot scenes full of credible and in some instances very fine acting, in a film left searching for its own personality.