Review: John Hillcoat's 'Lawless' Has Energy Despite Imperfect Script
by Jeremy Kirk
August 29, 2012
Families surviving in harsh conditions. You can’t say director John Hillcoat doesn’t have a type. The fly-ridden, dangerous ground of the Outback in The Proposition and the cold, grey surroundings of The Road kept the characters in his previous films prepared for the worst but fighting for the best. The same goes for the family of bootleggers in Lawless, his latest. The dangers they face are more focused, a special agent and his authorities, but the film remains a violent and realistic depiction of the time. Not as firmly carried out in the film's screenplay, Lawless is still solid drama about harsh people in harsh times.
Based on the novel The Wettest County in the World, the harsh brothers at the center of this rustic tale are the real-life Bondurants; Jack, Forrest, and Howard played by Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, and Jason Clarke, respectively. Jack was the author Matt's grandfather and the youngest of the siblings, all growing up and living with the illegal moonshine trade in Franklin County, Virginia. While living up to the "legend" surrounding their name, the brothers are content cutting a small notch in the business that makes gangsters in the much larger cities celebrities and millionaires. But when a special deputy, played by Guy Pearce, from Chicago shows up in their country town, the grip from the law begins to tighten on the brothers. Not wishing to go quietly, the brothers stand up against the corrupt deputy and anyone else who decides to step in their way.
As with The Proposition, Hillcoat works with screenwriter Nick Cave here. That previous film about lawbreaking brothers battling corrupt authorities and a brutal environment was prime experience for the screenwriter to tackle The Wettest County in the World, but his results aren't nearly as as effective. Large jumps in story that go almost unnoticed and characters having no real place in the story make one wonder if Cave had issues breaking down Bondurant's 300+ page novel that covers nearly 14 years in time. He takes liberties with the novel, mostly to add more death and violence, and for the story he and Hillcoat are trying to tell, the added carnage fits right in with the rest of Lawless' rugged atmosphere.
Once again Hillcoat delivers striking visual and overall air of foreboding. Once Pearce's lawman stands up to the feared Forrest Bondurant, events are set in motion that carry the narrative through. Though the antagonist disappears for long stretches, his presence is always there, fitted right in among the damp trees and muddy roads that litter the world Hillcoat has realized. The director always has a gripping eye for sensational action, and the shootouts with Tommy Guns and chase scenes with vintage cars - The lack of power steering had to be a real pain for those bootleggers - on display here keep the film charged. It's no wonder they changed the name from the novel, The Wettest County in the World, or audiences might have thought it was referring to all the blood on the ground.
The character dynamics aren't as compelling as one would hope with the brothers coming off more as old friends than life-long partners. Hillcoat and Cave work in random moments of playful wrestling or giving Jack a hard time since he's the youngest. It's evident that when one of these brothers is hurt or even worse, the others will spring into action, defending when they need to and seeking out-and-out vengeance when the time calls for that. There's not much felt between them, though, so that when one of them fails and another is seriously injured because of it, the guilt laid on the brother who failed isn't as heavy as it should be.
More time and care is given to the relationship with the women in some of the brothers' lives. Jessica Chastain, still on her role from 2011, plays Maggie Beauford, a woman who feels the brothers need feminine help from some source and whose eyes for Forrest are filled with more than friendly care. Mia Wasikowska plays the daughter of a local minister. Jack has eyes for her, though she may not feel the same way, and the scenes between LaBeouf and Wasikowska range from flighty to genuinely compassionate. The humor in these scenes doesn't always work, but credit has to be given to Cave and Hillcoat for wanting to make the film come off somewhat lighter than their previous works.
The cast has a hand in much of that, though, particularly Hardy who plays both menacing and quietly playful with effortless looks. The actor's talent was hardly in question before Lawless. Thanks, Bronson. With Forrest Bondurant, he has to run a wide range, the threatening sturdiness in his early scenes helping to push that legendary status the real man acquired. Forrest comes off like a king of the mountain here, standing atop and waiting for someone to come knock him off. There are few takers and even fewer men who succeed. It isn't until late in the film, when Hardy allows a smirk to bleed into his eye that his real commitment to the part comes into view. Forrest Bondurant is Lawless' best character, and it's fitting that it should be portrayed better than any other in the film.
As for the rest of the cast, LaBeouf swings between strong and Transformer-yelling as the inexperienced Jack who day-dreams of being one of the big players in the gangster world. Clark as Howard is fine, but he isn't given much to do. The female cast, Chastain and Wasikowska, are top-notch as always. Pearce is effectively creepy, looking a lot like Taco about to sing "Puttin On the Ritz." It's Gary Oldman, who does a fine job, where the screenwriters inability to fully craft every player in the novel is noticed. Oldman plays Floyd Banner, a local gangster who has something of a legendary status hanging over him, as well, but the character appears in three scenes, does little, and has even less effect on the overall story. It's the kind of role that feels like it would have been cut had the actor behind it not done such a fantastic job.
There's enough going on in the rest of Lawless to keep that minor issue from spoiling any of the fun. It isn't as strongly written as it should have been, but Hillcoat injects ample amounts of both mood and excitement into nearly every scene. The sense of brotherhood between the three leads or lack thereof is what keeps Lawless from being a real contender as one of the best films of the year. It's solid, and it drives its story and characters with a violent and steady momentum. Lawless feels more like Jack than Forrest, not always standing on a sure ground and sometimes coming off half-cocked. For all it has to say about legendary status and what it takes to be remembered, the film never fully pushes itself to achieving that greatness Hillcoat and Cave have previously reached.
Jeremy's Rating: 7.5 out of 10