[Review] – Lawless

20 Sep

Title: Lawless
Year: 2012
Director: John Hillcoat
Writer: Nick Cave, based on the novel by Matt Bondurant
Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Guy Pearce, Dane DeHaan
MPAA Rating: R, strong bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity
Runtime: 115 min
IMDb Rating: 7.7
Rotten Tomatoes: 65%
Metacritic: 58

Man was I excited to get to watch Lawless. It came from John Hillcoat, the Australian director responsible for giving us the gritty The Proposition and The Road and who would, consequently, seem to be a damn fine pick to tell this story. That story? One adapted from Matt Bondurant‘s 2008 novel The Wettest Country in the World, about his grandfather and great-uncles, the Bondurant Brothers and their bootlegging business during the Prohibition down in Franklin County, Virginia.

That story seemed fascinating, and to have Mr. Hillcoat there to tell it, alongside Nick Cave, a usual collaborator of his, writing the screenplay, then I was already sold. Then they announced the cast. Yes, Shia LaBeouf is one of the leads here and even though he’s been good in a couple of solid films I just don’t like him all that much and feel he’s being kinda fake about his “Oh, I’m just into edgy indie stuff now” after having made millions thanks to Michael Bay. But anyways, Mr. LaBeouf aside look at the cast this one has: Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Guy Pearce, Dane DeHaan and Jason Clarke. It’s like the best of the best acting talent, both newcomers and industry veterans. Those names in this Prohibition-era world was just too damn enticing.

If you’re not all that familiar with the story of the Bondurant Brothers just think of them as those epic gangsters during that time in American history that would do anything that needed to be done, legal or illegal, to get a grasp of the true American Dream. They used a bar as a front for their bootlegging, they must deal with a mobster and a brutal Special Agent, they must deal with emotions they develop towards women and, perhaps most of all, they must deal with themselves. Them being brothers right in the middle of such a famous crime wave in the history of the U.S. is super interesting, seeing how the family ties and the sense of loyalty that comes with them influences their risky business.

Like I said, the story, the actors, the director, the writer, this all pointed towards Lawless being one of the highlights of the movie year. And, well, it just wasn’t, I’m super sad to report. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a very good movie and one that I certainly recommend to you guys, it’s just that as it tries to be this epic story of crime and family (something that it certainly should have gone for) it misses the mark a few times. Still, even though it’s no masterpiece there are a few things you just can’t ignore here, one of them being the fact that Mr. Hillcoat is a in a class of his own a far as how gorgeously he shoots this gritty and bloody realities (and here he stretches his range a bit from his past efforts), and another thing being the fact that when you have a cast like this one you’re obviously bound to get a few moments of sheer brilliance on screen.

I was, however, indeed a bit disappointed here. There were a lot of really impressive individual elements that I thought didn’t add up to something as magnificent when they were added up, as though they didn’t rise above to the occasion and as a result I get a film that I admire, but also one I really wanted to call great but just can’t.

It’s a film that feels meditative because of that kind of lyrical screenplay from Mr. Cave (who also provided the score), that looks stunning because of Mr. Hillcoat’s direction and the cinematography provided by Benoît Delhomme (who worked on The Proposition), that doesn’t shy away from the required bursts of violence. All praise that I really mean and that just frustrates me more when I come to terms with the fact that Lawless just didn’t work for me at the level I wanted it to. Something that I attribute to the fact that I think the filmmakers here were also saddled with big ambitions and expectations that hung over them when telling this epic story.

Another thing that I thought probably hurt this film a bit is the fact that I was far more interested in the story when it came time for the villainous Special Agent Charlie Rakes to come on-screen than when it was about the trio of brothers. Don’t get me wrong, Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke and Shia LaBeouf do a decent job playing the Bondurant’s (in that order of performance quality), it’s just that they have nothing over what Guy Pearce brings to that table as this sadistic copper with a weird haircut and no eyebrows (a look that Mr. Pearce decided upon himself).

His performance is just wonderfully vivid and you can feel it through the screen like crazy, and he’s a more interesting characters than any of the brothers, especially the one Mr. LaBeouf plays who’s the one we must spend the most time with. The characters, and performances, provided by Gary Oldman and Jessica Chastain are, too, far more interesting aspects of this film we don’t get enough time with.

This film went through three title changes, eventually having Terrence Malick grant them the use of a title he had locked up for one of his upcoming films, it also went through Cannes where it only got mixed-to-positive response. Maybe I should have lowered my expectations accordingly, but I just always felt that this film would be great. It’s not. It’s really, really good; but it’s not great. I’ve listed all the reasons why I liked this one so much above, and just below them I’ve listed the ones that prevented me from loving it. A pity as it is, because I really wanted to love it. Still unsure about Shia LaBeouf; still super high on John Hillcoat; still loving seeing Jessica Chastain’s star rising; still loving championing Dane DeHaan as one of the great up and coming talents of his generation. Still disappointed that this one didn’t get me to really love it.

Grade: B+

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