Lawless (review)

A few nights ago I was looking for something new to watch and decided on Lawless (2012). I knew it didn't get fabulous reviews, and after the Transformers movies and the new Indiana Jones installment I definitely wouldn't consider myself a fan of Shia LaBeouf, so my expectations weren't very high. But I was just looking for something to relax in front of, and, I mean, Tom Hardy. He can really make a film enjoyable. In the end, I would say Lawless just barely met my admittedly average expectations, but that doesn't make it a bad (or even average) movie. It simply achieved goals that aren't as high a priority for me as they may be for others. To make a long story short (well the long story's coming as well, but you know what I mean), Lawless has wonderfully deep characters living in a world with underdeveloped themes. It's like the flipside of this year's Now You See Me (my review): where that movie was entirely plot-driven with only surface level character development, this one is entirely character-driven with only surface level story.

Lawless is the story of a family of moonshiners during the prohibition era, and that fact alone might be enough to sell the movie to some people. Jack (Shia LaBeouf), Forrest (Tom Hardy), and Howard (Jason Clarke) are the three Bondurant brothers, and there's a local legend saying that these men are immortal. Forrest is the head of the moonshine operation while Jack is the driver and Howard is the (usually drunk) muscle. They have a deal with the local sheriffs that they can traffic their alcoholic wares so long as they save a cut for them.

One day Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a city man from Chicago, comes down to clean up the town and he doesn't have the same respect for the Bondurants as the local police. He's determined to get them to pay a considerable fee to continue their business or shut them down. The Bondurants aren't to be messed with, however, and they manage to sidestep or rebuke his efforts consistently. But Jack, the youngest of the brothers, is still growing up and his shenanigans keep putting his family's solidarity at risk.

So if it's not obvious yet, this movie has a truly amazing cast. Shia LaBeouf is basically the protagonist here, which was somewhat disappointing at first since I came to see Tom Hardy and because LaBeouf's character is a bit of a whiny, selfish child. I say "at first", however, because by the end of the film (and I mean the very end) you will see why he had to be so self-centered and annoying. You'll find yourself emotionally attached to the little bugger despite all your effort. This is easily the best performance I've seen from LaBeouf since he starred in Holes ten years ago, and he was seventeen then so you even really can't compare the two.

In a similar but opposite way, no matter how much you love Guy Pearce you will hate him as the antagonist Charlie Rakes. He is so purely despicable, slimy, egotistical, and shameless that by the end of the movie there is little anyone could do to him that wouldn't feel deserved. He's even got a bit of a David Lynch thing going on which pleased me to no end. Tom Hardy's Forrest plays the opposite role, the soft-spoken but powerful and principled brother who reigns in the two extremes of Jack's naiveté and Howard's alcoholism. He is the backbone of the family and he is made to suffer for it. I went into this movie expecting Tom Hardy at his finest and in that respect I wasn't the least bit disappointed. The cast is also spotted with a few phenomenal supporting characters, with Jessica Chastain as the strong but troubled city girl, Jason Clarke as the loyal but drunken older brother, and Dane Dehaan as the lovable but crippled best friend.

The only problem I had with the casting, acting, or character development in this entire movie is the under-utilization of Gary Oldman. You simply can't cast such a big name in something like this and then give him maybe three scenes. Otherwise the acting is all top-notch and the characters are all pretty well-rounded, a combination which will be more than enough to keep some audiences hooked for the duration of the film. So why wasn't it enough for me? Because, while I can appreciate good acting and character development, they're not sufficient criteria for me to enjoy a movie. Lawless creates its lush and detailed world at the expense of developed thematic structure, which is not to say that no one will like it or that those who do are bad at watching movies. It just left me wanting something more.

There are simply too many plot threads in this movie for any of them to acquire any depth. There's Jack's story of young love, his story of growing up, and his story of learning to love his brothers. There's Forrest's story of somewhat more mature love, his story of growing up, and his story of keeping his family together. There are side stories like Howard's struggle with alcoholism, Cricket's struggle with being a cripple, and the sheriffs' struggle with Rakes and their relationship with the Bondurants. There's the story about how Maggie and Rakes knew each other back in Chicago. There's the story of the notorious gangster Floyd Banner coming to town. And if this is getting you even more excited to see the movie then prepare for some disappointment: many of these plot threads get a single scene before being dropped. There's a great movie in here somewhere, but the director's overambitious and all-embracing approach keeps the plot too crowded to be able to see it.

Film as a medium struggles constantly with how to adapt literature for the screen (Lawless is based on the memoir of one of the Bondurants). On the one hand, there is a steady demand for popular novels to be adapted, but on the other the fans of the original are almost inevitably disappointed. And here's why: either you try to include everything and end up with a shallow reflection of the original's wisdom and insight, or you make cuts and are endlessly criticized by alienated fans for cutting the wrong thing (something I myself am guilty of). You can also pull a Peter Jackson and stretch the movie out enough to include every detail, but then you limit your audience to only include fans of the source material. Each of the options is going to leave someone dissatisfied. Lawless chose the first option, so those like myself who thrive on thematic and symbolic depth are going to be left feeling like they missed out on something awesome.


  1. When I saw this movie, I just couldn't stand it. Your review explains why: the story rarely went anywhere substantial. It should've really focused on one character. Surprisingly, I hated the violence, probably because it tried to hide a poor storyline that was supposedly a masterpiece. Totally hated the movie.

    1. Yeah thanks for mentioning the violence, I totally had it here in my notes & forgot to mention it. Very bloody, and like you say it's trying (and failing I think) to use style to hide its lack of substance. Trying to imitate Tarantino or something by simply copy/pasting the level of violence is misunderstanding that style.

      I think there's a good movie buried somewhere in the source material used to make Lawless, but what came out definitely isn't it.


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