Lawless is something of a curious beast. While it seems somewhat reliant on obvious tropes and planting its feet in familiar ground for this kind of crime drama, it does so in such a manner that it rarely feels as if it has nothing to say, trying constantly to break out of the constraints and cliches of the kind of film that it is, and, more often than not, it succeeds.
It tells the story of the three Bondurant brothers, Howard (Jason Clarke), Jack (Shia LaBeouf) and Forrest (Tom Hardy), focusing particularly on the latter two, as they attempt to make their way and earn their share in Prohibition era America. The two of them are polar opposites, Jack being ambitious but cowardly, whereas Forrest carries himself with great strength, despite being a man of few words, especially compared to his brother. The two actors also give very different performances. LaBeouf, for instance, who recently spoke out against the studio system, as well as lining up to work with Lars von Trier, is clearly trying to make a mark on the indie scene, and it seems to come through in his performance, but not in a good way, he comes across as over eager, and it begins to grate. Hardy on the other hand, is reserved and powerful, bringing to mind his excellent performance in Warrior last year.
The cast in general is easily the highlight of the film, featuring an excellent performance from Jessica Chastain, the breakout performer of last year, who carries herself with a mix of serenity and, later in the scene, a host of nervous tics, so uneasy and afraid, it’s a wonderfully minimal performance. The ensemble also includes Gary Oldman, in what is essentially a cameo as big time bootlegger Floyd Banner, bringing his A game to the small role. Mia Wasikowska also appears, all too briefly as a love interest for Jack, her performance simple, natural and sweet, you can’t help but wish she was given more to do. The standout of the strong ensemble is easily Guy Pearce as Charlie Rakes, a flamboyant, feminine villain, who does not like to be touched.
Guy Pearce in Lawless
One of the film’s major issues comes from its pacing. The majority of the first act establishes character, and does so reasonably well, but the narrative itself moves at a sluggish pace, spending far too long finding its feet. It suffers here as, nothing much of consequence really happens for a while, the whole thing feels very sterile for a while. Then, once Pearce arrives on the scene the film explodes with brutal violence. These scenes of violence are often sudden and shocking, roaring into life with great effect. It’s a shame that the film needs these to really bring it to life, especially with a cast as good as this, they can’t help but feel underused (in the case of Pearce and Wasikowska) or wasted (in the case of Oldman)
Lawless is one of the most visually stunning films I’ve seen all year though. This is not to say it’s got gorgeous visual effects or glorious landscapes (director John Hillcoat sticks mainly with muted and grey colours, much like in The Road). However, the costumes, from Hardy’s, as I have seen it affectionately named on Twitter as the ‘Hardigan’, to Pearce’s suits and Chastain’s dresses, and shot selection and construction are wonderfully picturesque.
All in all, Lawless is something of a mixed bag. It can’t quite decide if it wants to break out of its genre conventions or embrace them, and this strange duality is seen all around the film, from the excellent costumes and muted backgrounds to the uneven performances. Well worth seeing for an excellent Pearce and a solid, engaging narrative, but don’t expect it to reinvent the wheel.