Review: ‘Lawless’ Is Uneven and Underwhelming

Well, at least it looks better than This Means War

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Welcome to the gun show, I guess.

Lawless (2012):

The Plot: In Prohibition-era Virginia, tough bootlegging brothers Forrest and Howard (Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke) act tough and independent. Meanwhile, their cowardly younger brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf, of course) decides that he wants to be a big man and play bootlegger too, guys. No one is really sure why he is there or what he is doing. Also meanwhile, artificially-creepy big city lawman Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) wants a cut of their profits, and then things get kind of bloody for a while. Then the plot keeps going to L’il Shia courtin’ the preacher’s daughter Bertha (Mia Wasikowska!) and getting up to youthful shenanigans. Again, nobody is really sure why he is there.

I was pretty excited about this before the trailer came out, back when it was just a twinkle in Gary Oldman’s IMDB page. Other than Shia LaBeouf, it’s got a great cast. Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Guy Pearce, Mia Wasikowska (I have a crush on her), and Jessica Chastain, who I’d heard great things about, even if I don’t really want to watch Tree of Life. On top of that, it’s about bootlegging and it’s got bluegrass music, which are both pretty cool things. Sadly, Lawless is a lot more like its underwhelming trailer than the movie I imagined, like, a year ago. I’m faulting it more for the former than the latter.

Now, I know that my snarky plot synopsis makes it sound like Shia LaBeouf’s character and plotline were the only things dragging this movie down, but there were a lot of things wrong with Lawless. Oh, wait, I guess I also mentioned how Guy Pearce’s character wasn’t all that great either. Well, there are still more things. But I don’t want to seem like a Negative Nancy—people say that, right?—so here’s some stuff about Lawless that is good:

1) Much of the cast. Tom Hardy and Jessica Chastain, especially. Their acting really makes up for the way the script starts developing Forrest and Maggie and then just kind of stops doing that halfway through the movie.

2) The direction. More specifically, the way director John Hillcoat and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme pay attention to the scenery and create a vibrant world. Lawless is often a very pretty movie, which, sadly, doesn’t make up for the awful pacing problems.

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3) Gary Oldman. He’s only in it for an estimated seven minutes, though, so don’t get too excited.

4) Mia Wasikowska’s face. She is very pretty.

5) At least half of the soundtrack. There’s some great bluegrass, and Warren Ellis and Nick Cave’s score is good at creating and maintaining a mood.

There are also some interesting and underwritten supporting characters, like Sherriff Hodge (Bill Camp), the local cop who’d rather just let things be the way they are, but has to answer to the higher echelons of law enforcement. Then there’s Cricket Pate (Dane DeHaan), Jack’s crippled, moonshine-brewing, genius mechanic best friend, which sounds kind of dumb when you say it like that. DeHaan has a compelling screen presence, and actually looks like he belongs in 1930s Virginia. Come to think of it, I might have enjoyed this film a lot more if DeHaan had played Jack. He’s as young as Jack acts at the beginning of the film, but has the range to act like Jack at every other point in the movie.

Speaking of Jack’s arc, you get the sense that his storyline is meant to take place over a period of years, but was compressed to save time and allow for more Shia LaBeouf. I don’t hate Shia. I loved him in Holes, and he was not my least favorite part of Transformers, or even Indiana Jones 4. I am generally okay with Shia LaBeouf. That having been said, he had no place in this movie. It’s not that he was bad, so much as just…completely wrong for the role.

By the way, that was me transitioning into the things that I didn’t like about Lawless. Here are some more!

1) The other half of the soundtrack. Well, maybe only like a quarter. But whenever Ellis and Cave are building tension, the score gets all Dark Knight bank heist on us. Seriously, I can’t be the only one who made that connection.

2) Serious pacing problems. This film has a way of mounting tension and then letting it go. This generally happens so that Jack can go a courtin’, because nothing says gritty and realistic like a light-hearted Hollywood romance. Oh, wait…

3) Violence for the sake of…what? I dig violence in movies. Give me a good martial arts fight and I’m pleased as punch. Heh. Get it? Pleased as punch. I also appreciate films that use realistic, seriously disturbing violence to further develop the characters, or contribute to a larger theme. Drive is an example of that character-driven, meaningful violence. Lawless, on the other hand, seems to be using it more as an aesthetic choice. Look how gritty and serious this movie is! There’s also some half-assed attempts to make a statement about violence not defining the characters, but it kind of does define them, because they’re all so damn underwritten.

4) Women. Mia Wasikowska, as much as I totally have a crush on her, does not really need to be here. Bertha is a very one-dimensional character, a generic small-town girl waiting to be swept off her feet by Shia LaBeouf in a fancy suit. She seems to exist so that Jack can gain confidence and then have someone to protect in one scene. Worse still is the transition of Jessica Chastain’s character from Tough and Independent Woman to Rape Victim—which, hey, let’s never really talk about that or have it affect her in any way—to “hey, let’s throw in a nude scene” to Girlfriend Who Doesn’t Want You to Fight Some Bad Guys Because You Might Get Hurt. She starts out as an individual with hints of an interesting backstory, but then gets transformed into one archetype after another. It’s kind of frustrating.

Weinstein Company
You can tell he’s evil because he’s the only character that wears gloves.

5) The villain. Yes, that is indeed the right word. Here’s another one-dimensional character that was clearly intended to be a lot more compelling. But Charlie Rakes is over-the-top, and the blame for that doesn’t rest entirely on Guy Pearce’s shoulders. It’s like half-and-half. Pearce, and as a fan it pains me to say this, chews the hell out of some scenery. His performance is all affectations that are meant to be unsettling, but just come across as forced. It doesn’t help that the character is written as one of those totally uninteresting “I like to do bad things because I am bad” types. Charlie Rakes is a lot like your one friend’s impression of Heath Ledger’s Joker, in that he’s a collection of creepy traits with absolutely no substance or personality. There’s no sense that Rakes has a reason to act the way he does. It’s like he has no motivation beyond acting like a dick so that the brothers have someone to resist, and later, something to avenge. This film needed an antagonist with some dimension. Sherriff Hodges would have been a good choice, or even Gary Oldman’s Floyd Banner. Both would have made interesting antagonists. You know, the kind who aren’t really bad guys, but are at odds with the protagonists for reasons of necessity or honor or whatever.

So is Lawless worth seeing? I was going to say yes, but then I wrote this review and now I am going to say no. Don’t bother seeing Lawless, at least not in theaters. Instead, here’s some other movies about crime in the 1930s that are a lot better:

1) O Brother, Where Art Thou? –It’s perfect and funny and quirky and even has a soundtrack of great bluegrass. It’s my favorite Coen Brothers movie.

2) Road to Perdition –Tom Hanks playing a character with depth and subtlety? A well-told story of family, with interesting characters trapped by conflicting interests and a strict code of honor? Holy crap, that sounds like the stuff that Lawless was trying to do! Also, Paul Newman is in it. And he is great.

3) The Sting —Paul Newman again, in his best film with Robert Redford. That’s right, even better than Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

4) Miller’s Crossing — I didn’t even really like this movie, but it’s still better than Lawless.

5) Public Enemies —This film suffered from some bad direction and questionable cinematography, but Johnny Depp is great, and Christian Bale gives a seriously underrated performance.

And for your bootlegging needs:

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