Say what you will about John Hillcoat’s THE ROAD, but for my dollar that film is a haunting and emotional film that as much as I hate voiceovers in movies at least has Viggo Mortenson delivering the monologues in a way that struck me emotionally. With LAWLESS Hillcoat neither has Mortenson or that great emotional connection and instead we have Shia LeBouf delivering flat boring monologues with a great period piece drama breaking through the surface just long enough to tease and the rest of the time it hovers just out of reach. There are a lot of good things going on in LAWLESS, but a lot of extremely flawed aspects as well that suggest maybe Hillcoat drinking out of those mason jars in the middle of filming.
Set in the Depression Era with prohibition in effect and based on the book The Wettest County in the World and billed as a true story LAWLESS follows three brothers in the business of selling moonshine until an aggressive city cop comes to town looking to shut them down. For the most part the story is pretty one note as the three brothers played by Tom Hardy, Shia LeBouf and Jason Clarke square off against the law while trying to run their business- along the way other things also happen, but nothing that really progresses the story any further. Also, I have a hard time accepting LeBouf in a lead role and also have an aversion to excess voiceover and this film did nothing to make me rethink my position on either of those aspects.
Based on performances alone the film is well worth seeing- in spite of my issues with LaBeouf, who is decent yet I still just can’t force myself to like him. Hardy continues to cement himself as an incredible physical force and a man of many voices although at times I found his voice here slightly more comical than in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. Based purely on his physical presence, Hardy helps the film carry a tense tone that breaks only when some extremely farfetched and unintentionally funny moments come along. I hate the fact that Gary Oldman has such a small role in this movie, because when he shows up he is so memorable and engaging that it made me dislike moments that he showed up and didn’t talk and eventually disappointed after he disappeared from the film entirely. Jessica Chastain is great, although one scene in particular when she ‘bares all’ will be the biggest takeaway for a wide margin of the male audience. There isn’t a bad performance to be found really, I just wish that anyone else had been cast in LaBouf’s role- I would have even liked to see Dane DeHaan in that role instead of the one he’s in and is also great.
There are a generous handful of strange things going on in this film that kept me from knowing what to take seriously and what was supposed to be intentionally off-beat and funny. The first has to do with the two best performances in the film from Tom Hardy and Guy Pearce- opposite in their overall tone and effect, but similar in the cartoonishness. Hardy’s a man of few words, but his voice is very gruff sounding and he says “Umm” a lot- he also mumbles a lot and what he says when he mumbles also provides a great deal of humor. Pearce on the other hand as the snidely city cop is a top hat, handlebar mustache and a short cape away from being a stereotypical cartoon villain. Don’t get me wrong it makes the film entertaining and the performance is great, but man is his character strange to listen to and look at. Some other odd things have to do with some of the editing and one thing in particular that happens to a specific character that should kill him, but doesn’t and a lot of the scenes that immediately follow that I was laughing at because it just seemed incredibly silly.
Hillcoat does really know how to shoot a beautiful movie though and LAWLESS is no exception. There are a lot of great shots throughout the film and some are as small as the framing of trees, or a man that’s been tarred and feathered. No matter how grimy and dirty the film gets the cinematography just look gorgeous and was enough to carry me through my least favorite scenes. The scenery works in cahoots with the performances to lift a script that if given to lesser actors would have been an even bigger problem. There are lines that are on the verge if something great and then when the character stops talking I kept thinking something cut them off when in reality the line or monologue just seemed to stop in mid thought.
With a movie called LAWLESS that stars such names synonymous with big loud blockbusters as of late one might expect something with more bang for their buck when in fact what we have is a drama with moments of action. There are moments of extreme violence that add to the underlying sense of dread in the film that hit me like a freight train and kept me involved from beginning to end. The fact of the matter is that as great as a lot of things in the film are they could have been so much better. Anchoring performances by Hardy and Pearce, beautiful cinematography and hard hitting moments of action make LAWLESS a late summer release worth seeing, but one that makes it evident the fireworks are starting to fizzle out.