Very few filmmakers have had the sudden rise to prominence quite like director John Hillcoat. With a rather startling ‘debut’ of sorts here stateside in the form of the brilliant modern Western The Proposition, Hillcoat subsequently went on to helm an underrated Cormac McCarthy adaptation, and is now firmly one of Hollywood’s most interesting names. With a career boasting nearly 30 years of experience (began working in film with music videos/documentaries only to helm his first feature in 1988), he’s a seasoned veteran of the film world, with the buzz of an indie auteur. And now, he’s back with his latest film, the long talked about and even longer gestating Lawless. It’s just too bad it should have sat on the shelf just a tad longer.
Set in a Depression-ridden county in Virginia, Franklin to be exact, the film follows a trio of brothers who run the leading bootlegging team in what is considered by many to be the wettest county in the world given the ease one was able to access liquor, considering the Prohibition era setting. Starring Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf and Jason Clarke as Forrest, Jack and Howard Bondurant, as well as the likes of Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska and an ever so entertaining Gary Oldman, the film may boast a cast worthy of any actors showcase, but with sub-par performances given across the board, the film proves to be a stylized revenge/western/thriller/action film with little on its brain more than an odd pace and an even odder sense of tone.
Hillcoat himself is as close to a star as this film has. Perfectly at home inside of this gritty and grimy world, Hillcoat has such ease steeping us in a universe bred on revenge, blood feuds and law-breaking, that it’s startling. With brutal effects work and even more in your face violence, the film however has a hard time with tone. With aspirations (particularly giving an overly musing final epilogue) of being a far more broad and epic a story, the film feels like a rather distant cousin to a film like Michael Mann’s Public Enemies. Completely unafraid of immersing the viewer right in the middle of the action, the level of tension is high, but instead of being palpably thrilling, it becomes stilted and tonally out of whack with the film’s attempt at giving the viewer some sort of emotional connection.
Take for example the ‘legend’ at the film’s core. Inherently a picture about the ability to control others through no other means that controlling the fear, there are lofty intellectual goals strived for here. Penned by Nick Cave, the film’s script is solid, and when allowed the time and space to breath, the cast really gives depth and in many instances heart to an otherwise heartless picture.
Guy Pearce is easily the strongest performer here, giving his evil Charlie Rakes a level of sliminess and snake-like vitality that in turn makes it one of the more entertaining ‘bad guy’ performances in quite some time. Very much a performance related to the great villains performed by Gary Oldman, he himself is also fine here, playing a mobster, but is horribly underused. The lead trio happen to be underwhelming, with each performance getting its moment to shine, but not much else. LaBeouf is arguably the best, giving a bit of intrigue to an otherwise stale romance, and also playing the young cub of the group with strength. Hardy is a tad off-kilter here, often times bringing a (possibly unwanted) sense of comedy to a film that is as violent as they come. Finally, the two women, Chastain and Wasikowska, are also both wasted here, given absolutely nothing to do in their respective romances, particularly Chastain, whose narrative runs through peaks and valleys as high and as low as any in the film.
Overall, while the film may have goals of becoming an entry into the pantheon of modern day westerns/action films, the depth with which it delves intellectual is often times undermined by the mediocre performances and direction that brings the pain, so to say. An odd blend of tones both narratively and directorially, Lawless is a film with, on paper, the potential to be a classic. However, it is neither great, nor a failure, which in turn, may be all one needs to know.