At first glance, Lawless looks like a version of The Fast And Furious set in the 1920s. But beyond the smash-cut trailers is a dark and brooding movie, pretty much exactly what you’d expect from director John Hillcoat and writer Nick Cave (yes, this Nick Cave). If any fans of Hillcoat and Cave’s previous collaboration The Proposition are concerned with the tone of Lawless, their concerns should be eased within the movie’s first 15 minutes.
Shia LeBeouf stars as Jack Bondurant, the youngest in a family of bootleggers during the height of Prohibition. As the youngest in the Bondurant family, he’s relegated to drive while his older brothers Forrest, played by Tom Hardy, and Howard, played by Jason Clarke, handle the dirty work. Their lives in rural Virginia are simple, and that’s how they like it. But there’s trouble in moonshine paradise when Guy Pearce’s corrupt district attorney comes to town.
There’s an uneasiness to Lawless that permeates almost every frame. Cave’s script features a level of care that isn’t immediately apparent in the film’s trailers and previews. His characters are well drawn and likable and though the plot eventually veers into predictability, there are moments — especially between Hardy and Jessica Chastain — that are memorable.
Pearce also is memorable as Charlie Rakes. He plays Rakes as a sociopath of the first degree, adding an intensity and uncertainty to every scene he occupies. The same can be also said for Gary Oldman, who only makes a brief appearance.
Hillcoat used the same director of photography on this project as he did on The Proposition, resulting in some pastoral imagery and inventive uses of lighting, specifically the lack of it. The film’s score consists of original pieces form Cave and collaborator Warren Ellis and music from the era.
Lawless suffers primarily from LeBeouf’s performance. He simply can’t hold his own in the presence of heavy-hitters like Hardy and Pearcce. His character is dynamic and conflicted; a young man on the age of adulthood in a time that was dangerous and exciting. LeBeouf is incapable of communicating the thrill and uncertainty effectively through his character.
The other problem comes from Cave’s script, which settles into a formula for its final third. The film’s final reel is boiled down and predictable, shifting into a more action/revenge tone that doesn’t mesh well with the scenes the preceeded.
Still, Lawless maintains enough severity and focus to tell a worthwhile story. The characters are likable, and well drawn, even if the plot unravels toward its conclusion.
It’s one of the few worthwhile trips into the backwoods of Virginia in American history.