Monday, September 3, 2012


John Hillcoat has made some gritty movies.  This is not a filmmaker given to sentimentality, and he's not afraid of capturing ugliness on film.  His last two films have impressed me, but fell just shy of being great; if there was just a little bit of spectacle added to spice up the bleakness, The Proposition and The Road would have been radically different.  Hillcoat's newest film, Lawless, prominently features Shia LaBeouf, which isn't necessarily a sign of quality or grittiness.  Lawless does have Tom Hardy, who I am quickly becoming a fan of, and the great Gary Oldman, who I love.  Adding Shia (which is Hebrew for "fluffy") to those two masters of transformation (as in acting, not turning into cars) and a frequently depressing director sounds like something worth watching.

Lawless is the true(-ish) story of the Bondurant boys, a family of moonshine makers/bootleggers in Prohibition-era America.  In Franklin County, Virginia, though, that was nothing special --- just about everyone either made their own moonshine or bought it from their neighbors.  Heck, even the police buy moonshine.  The Bondurants were different thanks to their reputation for toughness.  Well, thanks to Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard's (Jason Clarke) reputation, that is.  While those two have defied death and done things like punching Godzilla in the taint (I'm paraphrasing), their little brother, Jack (Shia LaBeouf) hasn't done much of anything.  With his brothers being local legends, that means that little Jack has a chip on his shoulder and big shoes to fill.  When the film begins, Jack's biggest problem is impressing a local girl and trying to make moonshine on his own.
The secret ingredient is urine
Things get significantly worse when a hot-shot Special Agent from Chicago rolls into town.  For the record, Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) might have a badge, but he is not a good man or a lawful one.  He is brutal and his game is extortion.
But he looks so nice...!
Rakes and his boss want to run the moonshine business in Franklin County; if the moonshiners give Rakes money, then he won't have the police harass them.  Forrest isn't the type to lay down for anyone, though, and refuses to pay.  Cue the violence!
Shia competes in the 200M Outdoor Shootout

The acting in Lawless was uniformly good.  Shia LaBeouf was the point of view character, but he was clearly not the most important character.  Still, even though his character was kind of annoying and remarkably stupid at times, I thought LaBeouf handled the part well.  All his actions made sense (for him) and LaBeouf's comic timing lightened up the film considerably.  Tom Hardy was the true star, though.  Hardy has great physical presence on the screen and his crazy eyes are some of the best in Hollywood right now.  When you give him a part where he is supposed to intimidate people, he slips into it with ease.  They even try to make him less threatening by having him wear sweaters all the time and speak in grunts, but he is still magnetic on the screen.  It's rare to have a clearly violent character portrayed as a patient man, but Hardy manages to pulls it off.
The world's deadliest cardigan fan, after Bill Cosby
Jason Clarke was also pretty good; his part largely consisted of him looking haggard and wordlessly communicating with Hardy, but he still felt dangerous.  Having Guy Pearce play the villain was an interesting choice, because he doesn't really stack up well against Tom Hardy.  Thankfully, they opted to make him weird, creepy and condescending --- thoroughly unlikable, in other words, and very much Hardy's opposite.  And in case you're wondering, yes, he did shave the part into his hairline.  Jessica Chastain was solid as Hardy's romantic interest, although her character's choices pointed to some of the film's weaknesses.  Mia Wasikowska played Shia's love interest, and she was fine in an uncomplicated part.  Dane DeHaan had a solid supporting role as Cricket, the Bondurant friend who survived rickets.  It wasn't a flashy part, but a solid supporting role in an ensemble drama; if he keeps picking roles like this, DeHaan might wind up being a big deal.  Speaking of big deals, I was excited to see Gary Oldman's first scene, where he calmly shoots the hell out of a pursuing car with a tommy gun.  He didn't say a word, he just winked.  And it was awesome. 
You had me at "tommy gun"
After that, though, he has maybe three more minutes of screen time.  What a waste!  Gary Oldman --- one of this generation's greatest actors and over-actors --- playing a bad-ass gangster that follows murders with winks, and he's barely in the story at all?!?  Lawless, you're a wicked tease.

I've mentioned that John Hillcoat is known for his less than optimistic films.  Part of that has something to do with him getting Nick Cave to write two of his films (including this one), but it is also a very deliberate choice on the part of Hillcoat.  He has never been one for sentiment when depressing realism is available.  That is what makes Lawless such a departure for him; it doesn't try to sear your soul.  In fact, Hillcoat actually tries to play to the humor in the script.
Ha ha!  Jokes!
Most of the film's levity comes from the awkwardness of Shia LaBeouf's character, but the best bits come from Tom Hardy's minimal reactions to Jessica Chastain.  These aren't supposed to be thigh-slapping gags, mind you, but those lighter moments are a lot more amusing in the otherwise grim context of this story.  Hillcoat is not going to impress you with his cinematography --- although the man knows how to frame a landscape shot --- instead, he opts for capturing unpleasantness.  His primary tool is a willing cast, and I thought he did a great job directing them.  He also managed to make a graphically violent film that does not feel exploitative.  We get to see several characters serve as blood-puking punching bags, but the focus is more on the horror of the violence than on how awesome the aggressor is.  If anything, this movie is about how you rebound from violence, instead of how you actually fight.
Two out of three brothers agree: rebound with alcohol
Thanks to that attitude, we are not forced to witness any explicit violence toward women, even though there are opportunities in the story.  For that matter, the gratuitous sex scene would have been pretty tasteful, too, if it didn't have Jessica Chastain getting naked about half a scene too early.  Oh, well.  All in all, I think this was a nice step forward for Hillcoat as an artist, since he has stretched his style a bit with (more or less) success.

Lawless is definitely a violent film, which naturally means that there are plenty of action scenes.  The movie trailer makes it seem as if this is going to be a movie filled with gunfire, but the focus is instead on hand-to-hand combat.  The most gruesome scenes involve knives, boots, and brass knuckles.  For fans of gore, there are more than a few scenes where it looks like the fellow getting beat up will be picking his own teeth out of his crap over the next few days.  The gunplay is fairly anticlimactic by comparison.  Aside from Gary Oldman's tommy gun scene and Guy Pearce's powerful revolver, nothing cool ever happens with guns.  That fits the tone of the film just fine, mind you.  If you're looking for something that basks in gunfire like Tombstone or a John Woo movie, though, this may not be for you.
Taking care of boo-boos is much easier than gunshot wounds

The biggest problem with Lawless is the story itself.  Hillcoat does a pretty good job, given the script, and Nick Cave's script is pretty engaging for being based on a true story.  The focus is all wrong, though.  At its core, Lawless is about greed and power (personified by Guy Pearce) infringing on freedom and principle (personified by Tom Hardy).  Unfortunately, the main character was Shia LaBeouf's, and too much of the film centered on his attempts at romance and manhood. 
"You staring blankly reminds me of my last girlfriend.  Do you know Megan Fox?"
Due to that focus, the filmmakers never get around to addressing the motivations of Jessica Chastain's character; I think there was an opportunity for a great supporting actress role here, but it gets buried because it does not directly impact Shia.  His character isn't strong enough to carry a "fill the shoes of my brother" sort of story, and that becomes obvious as the plot ticks on.  I like the way this movie looks and feels, and I enjoy the acting.  The story is the unfortunate weak point.  For fans of Tom Hardy and bloody face punching, though, it is definitely worth a watch.


  1. Good review Brian. It's a pretty fun and well-acted flick that kept me entertained mostly throughout. That was, until the slow pace had to come in and make everything wait longer and longer than it had to. Still, great way to end a pretty solid summer movie season.

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  3. Spot on with the weak story, although I think it hurt my viewing more than yours. It sets up like it is going to be all about the show down between the boys and the law, then we just follow around Jack (but I admit, following around a Shia character was acttually much more pleasant than I would have ever guessed), and the law infiltrating the bootlegging comes and goes as it pleases throughout the movie. I think Nick Cave had some good dialogue and ideas, but got the story way wrong. Also, the climatic shoot out scene certainly raises many questions. Good call on the lack of the development of the Chastain character as well.

    And was it just me or was it really hard to recognize Guy Pierce without a bunch of Silly Putty on his face (a la Prometheus)?

    1. Guy Pearce's career has baffled me for years. I thought he was going to be a big star after LA Confidential and Memento, but he followed it up with utter crap. I didn't see The Proposition when it came out (like most people) and the next good movie he was in was The Hurt Locker in a bit part. From 2001-2009, I didn't see him in a large role in any good movies. And now he's back. He's been in at least 5 solid movies in the last two years, and he's played very different parts in each. Bizarre.

      I think the main weakness of the story was the decision to actually follow reality somewhat, instead of taking the "true story" as inspiration and making a cooler movie from that. This is why biopics usually suck, too.