It was a bitter Monday afternoon and I had been back in the UK for a mere 2 days following a 7 week stint in Ghana. I was itching for a trip to the cinema and much to my delight John Hillcoat's Lawless was still showing. It wasn't Orange Wednesdays but I was feeling roguish so ventured off anyhow. We chose the 8 o'clock showing, giving us enough time for a cheeky KFC beforehand.
A Big Daddy Box Meal @ £5- finger licking good, admission to the cinema @ £8- middle finger inducing.
Personally, I love films set in the Prohibition Era. Miller's Crossing, The Untouchables and Road to Perdition are all personal favourites, with each one finding that perfect blend of romanticism and brutality which makes the Roaring Twenties such an enticing spectacle. Fedora hats, Tommy guns, sharp suits and even sharper tongues. What's not to love? There was also the small matter-of-fact that a certain Mr. Thomas Hardy was fronting our gang of Virgina bootleggers. The incorporation of this man of the moment stretched my expectations from "mildly excited" to "sh*t the bed" territory. Other stellar cast members such as Guy Pearce, Shia LaBeouf and Gary Oldman only added to my boyish levels of excitement. The ingredients for a top notch Probi Era film were all there.
Sadly the packaging was shinier than the product.
Lawless is centred around the three Bondurant brothers (Howard, Forrest and Jack) who earned quite the reputation around Virginia for being a family full of hard, no nonsense red-neck sons o'bitches. The film delves straight into the families rise from country bumpkins to big shot bootleggers, dedicating little screen time to their troubled and colourful pasts. The hierarchy of the brothers is at the heart of the film, as it's here where their individual roles are made proufoundly, and somewhat bluntly, clear.
The Brothers Grimm
Howard is the oldest. Howard can punch things and drink. This is as complicated as his characters make-up gets. He brings nothing but brawn to the table, which might be forgiven if he was a part of the furniture, however he is not. He is one third of our troop, or is at least supposed to be. The brothers are supposed to compliment each other on some sort of intrinsic level but his presence only serves to irk me as he is so poorly constructed. He is a henchman in a straw hat. To put it James Bluntly he is a bit shit. Jason Clarke's haggard performance is border line irritable but in his defence Howard feels massively underwritten, leaving the characters presence as little more than underwhelming throughout. He reminds me of Lenny from Of Mice and Men only without the endearment or charm. Fortunately, the younger Bondurant’s have a bit more about them...
The matriarchal presence and undisputed leader of our booze-toting crew is Tom Hardy's character, Forrest. Despite parading around in Granny apparel Hardy manages to give Forrest that air of invincibility which acts as the pillar to the Bondurant legend. Despite most of his dialogue being an unintelligible series of moans and grunts (sound familiar?) he radiates a genuine sense of character and brings a great amount of presence to the screen. His awkward encounters with love interest Maggie dabble in giving him a more humane side, yet the sequence wherein he chops an adversaries balls off tell of a guy who cannot be brought from back over the edge. As well as being seemingly indestructible Forrest has an unnerving calm and quite sense of rage that, at points, is almost tangible. Portraying this type of interiority is becoming a staple of Hardy's acting profile and it certainly adds a valuable layer to a film wherein most of the characters are only skin deep. Writer Nick Cave has recently announced that Hardy aimed to play Forrest like "an old lesbian". I'm not sure if old lesbians make a habit of punching people's oesophagus's through with a knuckle duster but you can sort of get where is coming from. I think...
Finally, we are left with the youngest- Jack. Jack is ambitious, impatient, petulent and vulnerable. If the films rushed narrative could be personified by a character it would certainly be this young chap. For the most part LaBeouf does a sterling job as Bondurant Junior; diluting the excessive violence with a light comic touch. Jack is profoundly different from the other characters but is heavily burdened by the reputation of his older brothers thus he feels the need to get out there and prove himself. With the help of crippled best chum "Cricket" (played by the excellent Dane DeHaan) Jack embarks on a journey that see's him come to loggerheads with City gangster Floyd Banner (the sinfully underused Oldman) as well as triggering events which make the brotherly clan of special interest to Guy Pearce's corrupt cop, Charlie Rakes. Hardy may steal several of the scenes they share but the film would be extremely laborious without LaBeouf who is snappy, likeable and able to shift through the gears.
The Show StealersAs the men go around snapping collar bones and removing testicles it is the women who are left to pick up the pieces. Barring LaBeouf's table top tantrum following the death of Cricket the Bondurant boys remain largely devoid of emotion. At first their unwavering confidence is admirable. They back themselves in full, a quality all men wish we had. However, after a while, and especially after Forrest survives his neck being sawn in half, it becomes a bit tiresome and alienating. The legend that the boys are "invincible" is tested far too often and it begins to encroach on piss taking territory. Jessica Chastain gives a quality performance as the seductive but troubled barmaid "Maggie" whilst Mia Wasikowska (blimey that took a few attempts) glides around the screen as the ethereal yet rebellious "Bertha". Both bring a sense of equilibrium to the film and try their best to fill in the holes that the boys leave. Chastain's character is perhaps the more absorbing of the two and the actress’s ability to convey both strength and vulnerability is bang on the money. You get the impression Maggie has had a tormented past without really being fed much information, this is largely owing to Chastain’s excellent performance (as opposed to the writing).
IrritationsI will spend little time covering Guy Pearce's character because by in large he is extremely irritating and one of the films biggest mishaps. Rake's is played as an excessively refined character; a nasty little bastard who plucks his eyebrows, polishes his gloves and dies his hair charcoal black. These additional characterisations would be all well and good if they served a purpose but they gradually reduce Rake's to a laughing stock. His obsessive compulsive behaviour isn't mixed with a deadly dose of cut throat killer, but instead, a slimy little bully whose dialogue is often childish and unconvincing. I genuinely rate Pearce but not in this case. It feels like his character was struggling for an identity so they merely polarised him to the Virginia surroundings. If a guy is going toe to toe with Hardy the last thing you give him is a pair of tweezers and a nail file. Why wasn't Oldman used more? Did he have commitments elsewhere? Was he unconvinced by the script thus limited his own part? I hope so otherwise he was criminally under used. Floyd Banner is one of the coolest mother funkers in the film but he fades away without really leaving a lasting impression. His entrance promises so much, wherein he mows down an on-coming vehicle with a Thompson submachine gun, but he leaves on a whimper. Pah!
Lawless is a visceral, dizzy, whirlwind of a film whose epicentre consists of cut throat violence and a generous side dollop of gore. Hardy is commanding, LaBoeuf is charming whilst a host of the other cast members are grossly misused. Larger roles for Oldman, Chastain and Wasikowska could have provided a greater sense of depth and extended the films boundaries to beyond that of a switch blade. The last 10 minutes of the film are also a bit of a slap in the face to the rest of it and could have done with being axed from the final cut. If this film was a steak cooking on a Virginia barbi it would come out rare, not because it's one in a million, but because it's bloody and far from well done.
Rating: Promised so much and delivered so little. Still relatively entertaining but Hillcoat could have produced something much more engrossing with the talent at his disposal.
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