After The Proposition and The Road, director John Hillcoat has positioned himself as a filmmaker that produces poetic tough guy movies. Existential angst and hard R violence mix freely in the Hillcoat’s world, finding a balance between art house class and genre sleaze. So when it was announced his next movie would be a dusty prohibition era tale that slams together the gangster and western genres, it seemed like topping himself was a distinct possibility. Unfortunately, Lawless feels like a film compromised somewhere in the editing process with long passages awkwardly truncated and the director’s patented slow, thoughtful pacing replaced with a more action-centric aesthetic. The film still works reasonably well as an entertaining gangster yarn filled with the performances you get as a prestigious director working with his pick of the top actors around (and, sadly, Shia Labeouf). Unfortunately, without the depth or ambition that Hilcoat brought to his previous two features the surface thrills just aren’t enough to elevate the material above standard old timey gangster fare and it succeeds only because the standard for that genre has been lowered so significantly over the last few years.
The film is set in a Depression-era Franklin County Virginia. It’s a dusty desolate town where the only fun to be had and money to be made comes from bootlegging. Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy) rules over the area, considered a local legend and even immortal for his tendency to lay down beatings and take bullets while keeping on trucking. His bootlegging business and restaurant keeps the legend alive and his family supported. Forrest’s baby brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf) doesn’t offer much when it comes to the family business of laying on beat downs, but he does have a business brain and a buddy (Dane DeHaan) who’s a moonshine making genius. Together they help turn the illegal family business into more money than anyone in the area has ever seen. Unfortunately that kind of success tends to get a wee bit of attention and some corrupt local officials decide they want a piece of the action. Specifically there’s a nutso special agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pierce) determined to destroy the family or profit from them and so a good old fashioned tommy gun gangster war kicks off. Gary Oldman is also involved as another local bootlegger/gangster and is worth mentioning because it’s a classic deranged Oldman performance. Unfortunately there’s no sense in bringing his character into the synopsis since the man’s most menacing work in years is wasted in little more than a cameo.
Chances are Oldman’s character was once far more present in the film and was tossed aside during what must have been a fairly brutal editing process. The performers who fared worse in that sheering were Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska who are barely present in the narrative beyond being generic love interests for Hardy and Labeouf. It’s hard to imagine Hillcoat would want to waste such talented actresses or that they would sign up for such nothing roles after becoming stars, and that’s the biggest piece of evidence that this was once a sprawling multi-character bootlegging epic. One of the major downsides in streamlining the project is that LaBeouf ends up being the main character, robbing screen time from vastly superior supporting actors so that he can do his cocky, misunderstood kid routine one more time. Shia’s not the worst actor in the world and is perfectly fine in the movie. He’s just the worst actor in a pretty amazing cast.
Fortunately, Tom Hardy steals away the movie and almost singlehandedly makes it a solid gangster outing. Once again Hardy commits to an eccentric voice that’s jarring at first before becoming an indispensable character-defining trait as the film wares on. He brings a sly sense of humor to the “immortal” aspect of the character, turning the fact that he survives gunshots, beatings, and a slit throat into a reoccurring gag that not only makes it credible, but pretty damn hilarious. It’s a fairly interior performance of a quiet man that he nails, while on the other end of the spectrum Guy Pearce seems to be channeling over-acting specialists like Jeffrey Combs as a ludicrously over the top villain. Boasting shaved eyebrows, comically lavish suits, and breaking every scene down into a series of wild poses, it’s an insane theatrical performance the likes of which Pearce rarely attempts. It’s a left field choice for the actor and the film, but works precisely because of how out of place it feels. Lawless follows the gangster (and occasionally Western) movie conventions so slavishly that Pearce’s oddball manic explosions are necessary just to keep audiences on their toes. The same is true of Hillcoat’s typical brutal, physical violence. Usually it’s gruelingly unromantic, but here it’s necessary to spark some sort of visceral reaction out of the audience.
Now, that’s probably being too hard on Lawless. It is after all “just” a gangster movie and one released late summer to gather up some thrill seeking profits before the prestige fall movie season is upon us. When compared to most B-movie spins on guys in suits shooting each other with tommy guns, the film is a perfectly pleasing time waster with just enough dramatic weight. The trouble is that Hillcoat is better than that and the passages of Lawless that haven’t been tampered with have the mix of brutal realism and almost mythically simple storytelling that made The Proposition and The Road so compelling. That combined with the flashes of brilliance from Pearce and Oldman and the steady hand of Hardy constantly showcase and suggest the intriguing dust bowl gangster epic that could have been. However, even if there is a 2.5-3 hour director’s cut sitting on a hard drive somewhere, it’s hard to say if it’s that fantasy masterpiece. If you can get past expecting more than what’s on the screen, there’s plenty to enjoy. It’s just frustrating Hillcoat and Hardy got so close to leaving an indelible stamp on the gangster genre and ended up with a perfectly watchable B-movie instead. Ah well, at least it’s not as big of a letdown as Public Enemies.