I thought I walked
Cathal Dennehy finds Lawless ultimately disappointing.
Australian director John Hillcoat returns with Lawless, the story of the Bondurant brothers who ran a successful bootlegging racket in 1930s Virginia. Coming on the wave of considerable hype (including calls for Tom Hardy to be given an Oscar for this performance on the part of Entertainment.ie), Lawless retains the dread and desolation that Hillcoat has come so accustomed to in the critically acclaimed The Road and The Proposition. It is the latter that it bears the most resemblence too, acting as an unofficial sister piece to the film, both of which were written by Nick Cave and starred Guy Pearce in prominent roles. The brutal and bloody outback setting is a welcome return, though has Hillcoat delivered as powerful or effective a film this time around?
Ultimately the answer is no. From the very start, Lawless seems a little unsure of itself. In fact, the film doesn’t really start until around the forty-minute mark. Up to then, the story and the characters themselves simply amble along with no real plot bringing the whole thing together. When it finally does start, everything begins to take shape and a more confident, cohesive film starts to manifest itself. However, in that first forty minutes there are quite a few problems to be seen.
One of these problems comes in the form of Guy Pearce. He plays Charlie Rakes, a police sheriff who sets out to cut off the three brothers profits. While the rest of the film is grounded quite firmly in reality (it is, after all, based on a true story), Pearce plays a straight-up pantomime villain. Never for a single second does the audience ever believe that he is a real character and, because of this, whenever Pearce appears on screen the film threatens to keel over and die.
Another major hiccup is the handling of Jack’s (Shia LaBeouf) and Forrest’s (Tom Hardy) relationships with Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) and Maggie (Jessica Chastain), respectively. It’s not that they are clumsily handled but rather that they ultimately come to nothing. If these relationships never have any real effect on the story then why bother including them? Due to this, the audience never has the chance to get emotionally invested with the characters and their lives and it all seems somewhat inconsequential. Finally, Hillcoat comits a cardinal sin in that he takes the excellent Gary Oldman and chooses to do absolutely nothing with him. That’s the real crime of this film.
That said, there is a lot to like about the film. Tom Hardy, still looking like a walking, talking mountain, gives an enjoyably menacing and atmospheric performance as leading brother Forrest. Even Shia LaBoeuf, usually the worst thing in his films, manages to give a decent performance as runt of the litter-come-wannabe gangster Jack.
The film also looks fantastic and there are some wonderful shots of the American countryside. However instead of the bright browns and oranges usually accosiated with Virginia, the film’s main colour pallete is one of dark greys and muddy browns. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (of Bad Seeds fame) scores as well as scripts. While his script may be a little ropey in places, the music is most certainly not. A heady mixture of folk, Missippi delta blues and even a little bluegrass help to capture the atmosphere of a redneck backwater in the 1930s.
All in all, Lawless is an uneven mixture of confident performances, confused characters and throat-ripping violence. The whole film never comes together in an entirely satisfying way but there still is a lot to like.