Lawless plays like a 40’s gangster film with modern production values and film-making perspective. The plot of these movies usually revolves around several high-strung characters whose interactions culminate in a series of “showdowns” from which the film derives its action. Therefore, there is high priority placed on the relationships between the actors, and usually less of a priority on the storytelling. “Characters” is a fitting description for the personas involved. They are usually deeply flawed and their motives are clearly defined.
Lawless tosses another wrinkle into this time-tested formula. The screenplay is based on the 2008 book The Wettest County in the World, authored by Matt Bondurant. The book itself is based on the real-life struggles of bootleggers in rural Virginia. As a movie based on a book, Lawless confronts the challenge of adapting print to screen. Unfortunately, the film struggles to balance the book’s narrative with the devotion to character relationships that is consistent with classic gangster films. The biggest problem is that there are just too many characters.
This film has a stellar cast and there is not one weak spot among the bunch. Tom Hardy is perhaps the most outstanding, but the problem remains that there are too many good characters for the running time. We want to spend time with all of these characters but the way the movies skips around to cover the important parts of the book leaves many characters ill-defined or helplessly brushed aside. This gives Lawless the unusual stigma of having great acting but a poor plot. If anything, it’s usually the opposite. Still, the film is interesting enough that its story-related foibles don’t ruin the experience. Not only is this aforementioned acting prowess a rarity, but the film looks like a work of art. The good outweighs the bad.
Story: The film follows the bootlegging exploits of three brothers in rural Virginia during Prohibition. The eldest brother, Forrest, knows how to run a business and deal with the local corrupt law enforcement. Middle brother Howard knows how to make very good moonshine and as a result, no one else can compete. When a big city deputy is called in to deal with the moonshiners, Forrest is injured and Howard gets scared. The future of the family business falls in the lap of the youngest brother, Jack, who makes a deal with a gangster to keep the money flowing. Will his ambition pay off, or will his risky decisions catch up to him? Okay (6.0/10)
Acting: Tom Hardy plays the formidable Forrest. Hardy’s performance is excellent, as he makes Forrest into an enjoyable and well-rounded character. Jason Clarke is on the verge of a breakout as Howard, even if he is featured the least of the three main characters. It’s Shia LaBeouf, however, as Jack that carries the film. His energetic performance and evolution through the film make up for the haphazard story. Guy Pearce is also fabulous as the crooked deputy Rakes. His performance is unnerving enough to be a counter to Tom Hardy’s Forrest, despite a lack of screen time. The supporting cast is also excellent, including Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, and Gary Oldman. The only real problem with the acting in this movie is the lack of screen time for everyone except Jack. Great (10/10)
Direction: John Hillcoat (The Road) directs. Hillcoat is a very visual director, and that style really makes this film shine. The cinematography is excellent. The movie is crisp, clean and beautiful despite the dreary tone and mostly depressing story. Hillcoat also likes to use lighting to enhance the imagery of the film. His contrast of light and dark, especially in the climactic scene, is tremendous. Unfortunately, there seems to be too much material for Hillcoat to handle. The plethora of well-acted characters, the scope of the story, and the need for a consistent pace work all prohibit Hillcoat from creating a masterpiece. Good (8.3/10)
Special Effects/X-Factor: Not only is this movie filmed beautifully, it’s designed beautifully as well. The set pieces, the cars, and the costumes are all very detailed and look very realistic. When the action picks up, the film does manage to be very exciting. There’s no shortage of blunt and bloody confrontations. This helps to amp-up the realism. Unfortunately, the problem is that there is too much going on. Simplifying the story somehow would have made this film much better and perhaps an instant modern classic in the vein of Road to Perdition. Okay (6.5/10)
Rating: (7.7/10) = C (Average)
· What’s Good: It’s not that often when I can say that all of the characters are excellently portrayed; The actors really do a fantastic job, as does the director; This movie looks and feels excellent.
· What’s Bad: Too many characters means that some of them get the short end of the stick; The same thing happens with the story because there is too much going on; Some areas get more focus than others, leaving the film with an uneven, cluttered feeling.
Verdict: Another victim of the book-to-screen conundrum.