Were it not for Killer Joe, Lawless would almost certainly be 2012’s standard-bearer for stylized violence, regarding blood and guts as substances just as important to its function as plot or character. That’s fair, given the particular violence of the era, but what’s so striking about the throat-slittings and tommy-gun massacres of John Hillcoat‘s film isn’t the level of violence, but the calm its characters exhibit in the face of it. Its protagonists, the Bondurant brothers, are a trio of outlaw bootleggers, the leader of which survived the Great War, the flu, and all manner of worldly calamity. When you’ve got a reputation as an immortal, I guess it’s no big thing, watching another man get perforated.
Lawless tries to squeeze a lot of different movies into its bloody framework, but is at its best as a pure battle of wills. The Bondurant brothers—leader Forrest (Tom Hardy), muscle Howard (Jason Clarke), and wheelman Jack (Shia LaBeouf)—are the whiskey-running kings of Franklin County, a hamlet so wet you can see their stills burning from space. The lawmen are easily-greased and the competition amiable. That changes upon the arrival of Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a lawman from Chicago who, given his dress, his smell, and his immaculately coiffed hair, stands apart from the hicks he’s been sent to tame to such an extent that most of Franklin County immediately submits to his will. His clash with Forrest is the film’s most fertile ground, both in illustrating how far one man will go to to catch and kill his prey, and how determined the other is to survive as hes done his whole life.
But Lawless belongs neither to Charlie Rakes or Forrest Bondurant. It’s little-brother Jack’s story, about how he, despite his (understandable) fear of death, sees an opportunity to expand the family business and start living a little bit of the good life afforded to slick mobsters like like Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), whose exploits he clips from the newspapers. He crushes on the daughter of a fundamentalist pastor (Mia Wasikowska) and, while his brother is in the hospital, teams up with the family’s crippled tagalong (Dane DeHaan) to pull in the largest score the family’s ever seen.
Though he’s the focus of this particular story, there’s not a whole lot going on in Jack’s story. He claims to be a good bootlegger and, considering that he doesn’t get caught, that’s true. But Lawless isn’t really much concerned with the degree of difficulty faced by moonshiners. Running whiskey through a county is mostly shown to be as easy as throwing a tarp over a giant shipment and driving through country roads. Jack may be the best in the world when it comes to driving—which, given NASCAR’s roots in bootlegging, is actually kind of impressive—but against Rakes, paired up with Bertha Minnix, selling to Floyd Banner, or hanging out with his brothers, Jack Bondourant always seems criminally in over his head. He may be the reason his family experiences unprecedented success at a time when every other bootlegger is cutting unfair deals with Rakes, but it’s also his stupidity that brings the family business crashing down.
Lawless continues the tradition of Shia LeBeauf movies where the actor undertakes an unusual journey to manhood and is watched over by figures vastly more interesting and important. Giant robots and Indiana Jones have tried and failed to be the spoonful of sugar that makes LeBeauf palatable leading-man material, and, while it still fails, Hillcoat’s film comes a lot closer by surrounding LeBeauf’s blank everyman with a variety of strongly-drawn characters, many of whom light into LeBeauf for his hubris in ways the PG-13 fantasias of Steven Speilburg and Michael Bay simply will not allow. Sure, there’s something grating to the aw-shucks approach his character takes to the business of being a gangster, but his brothers or Charlie Rakes are always there, prohibiting him from letting out a Tarzan yell or taking a trip to robot heaven. A lot of this, I suspect, is due to the work of screenwriter (and singer and novelist) Nick Cave, whose embattled-but-oblivious protagonists often can only blame themselves for their predicaments, even if they’re too stupid to actually do so.
Cave’s theatrical embellishments, which were wonky in Hillcoat’s The Proposition, find a good home in Charlie Rakes, who, as played by Guy Pearce, is as deliciously evil an antagonist as a film taken from a fact-based novel allows. Often, what he says and what others say about him provides all the detail needed of a certain character. When he tells Chicago-transplant Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain)—who took a job at the Bondurant’s store to escape the grind of city life a whole day before war visits Franklin County—that she has nothing to fear from him because he “doesn’t drink from greasy cups,” his authority is such that the nature of Maggie’s work—however exaggerated he’s making it to shame her—paints a better picture of her life than any non-answer she gives the Bondurants.
Though it runs just shy of two hours, Lawless feels hopelessly overstuffed. Its women and Chicago mobsters crowd the edges, littering the movie with subplots that are both predictable and of little interest. Chastain and Wasikowska are both handcuffed here as objects of desire. They’re more important and receive plenty more dialog than the black prostitute whose cup Charlie Rakes does drink from, but that’s perfunctory to their roles as pursuer and pursued, respectively. That kind of fuzziness comes with he pulpy territory Lawless tromps through, but given the film’s meditative plotting and lush cinematography, its crate-digging soundtrack (cherrypicked by Cave, who also scored with his usual partner, Warren Ellis) and prodigious cast, what’s clear is that Hillcoat was aiming much higher. Considering how much more fun Lawless is when indulging in its lurid tendencies than when it’s not, that turns out to be an unfortunate miscalculation.
Lawless. Directed by John Hillcoat. With Shia LaBeouf (Jack Bondurant), Tom Hardy (Forrest Bondurant), Jason Clarke (Jason Bondurant), Guy Pearce (Charlie Rakes), Jessica Chastain (Maggie Beauford), Mia Wasikowska (Bertha Minnix), Dane DeHaan (Cricket Pate), and Gary Oldman (Floyd Banner). Released August 29, 2012, by The Weinstein Company.