Shia LaBeouf makes a compelling bootlegger but LAWLESS comes up short on excitement
Shia LaBeouf continues to make his transition from the Transformers franchise and walks away from giant robots and gargantuan explosions for a period bootlegger drama that’s surprisingly artful and restrained.
Based on Matt Bondurant’s true story about his grandfather and two granduncles, down-home bootleggers working in ‘30s Franklin County, Virginia, a place author Sherwood Anderson christened in Bondurant’s book as the “wettest county in the world,” the Weinstein Company tweaks the title to the more generic Lawless.
In fact, the title switch is just the first of many dull tweaks by director John Hillcoat and musician-turned-screenwriter Nick Cave that changes a pulpy, true crime story into an art drama too atmospheric for a tale involving, Chicago gangsters, mountain bootleggers, corrupt police and the illegal booze known as “White Lightning.”
Crooked politicians and greedy lawmen, including Chicago transplant Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), battle the Bondurant sibs including Howard (Jason Clarke), the family muscle; Forrest (Tom Hardy), the businessman behind the family bootlegging operations; and Jack (LaBeouf), the youngest brother who hungers for finer things in life and an escape from Franklin County.
Like the book, Hillcoat’s movie adaptation is vivid in its bloodletting but surprisingly lulling in-between its bursts of gunfire.
Lawless pales compared to the popular Appalachian crime series Justified and one wishes that Hillcoat looked to cult classics like Burt Reynolds’ White Lighting for some grind house inspiration.
Lawless comes up short on excitement for a tale stuffed with fast cars, pretty girls and frequent gun battles. Perhaps Hillcoat is embarrassed about the film’s pulpy origins. By treating the tale of the bootlegger Bondurant brothers as opera, Lawless loses a good deal of fun.
Jessica Chastain, so incredible this past year in Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter opposite Michael Shannon; opposite Brad Pitt in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, as well as The Help and Coriolanus with actor/director Ralph Fiennes; is little more than ginger window dressing as a former showgirl who comes to work for the soft-spoken Howard.
Gary Oldman makes a dramatic appearance as Chicago gangster Floyd Banner with Tommy gun blazing and then disappears from the story with little explanation.
Jason Clarke fades into the background due to a superficial character that’s little more than a hot-tempered fighter and frequent drunk.
Tom Hardy struggles to make use of his powerful charisma despite a character that mumbles throughout the movie. After recently appearing as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, a comic book villain that speaks through an elaborate mask, one craves to hear Hardy speak normally in a movie.
The most natural and enjoyable performance belongs to Dane DeHaan as the innocent bootlegging helper named Cricket. DeHaan channels Michael J. Pollard’s classic Bonnie and Clyde performance to play the one true innocent in the movie and arguably the most sympathetic of all the characters.
DeHaan, last seen in the sci-fi adventure Chronicle, may lack the marquee status of the film’s leads but he provides the movie its most suspenseful scenes.
LaBeouf keeps his promise to stay away from the Transformers franchise and Lawless helps prove that there’s more to him than just playing the high-salary action star.
For LaBeouf, Lawless looks to be a solid first step towards a new chapter as a dramatic actor. Hopefully, if the movies get better, I’ll pretend like the Transformers movies never happened or at least brush them aside as a youthful decision to become world famous very fast.
Lawless Film Details:
Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, Dane DeHaan and Gary Oldman
Director: John Hillcoat
Screenwriter: Nick Cave, from the book The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant
Cinematographer: Benoît Delhomme
Editor: Dylan Tichenor
Producers: Annapurna Pictures, Benaroya Pictures, Blum Hanson Allen Films, Pie Films, Red Wagon Pictures
Running Time: 115 minutes
Rating: Rated R
Release Date: August 29, 2012