Set in Depression-era Franklin, Virginia Lawless focuses on the Bondraunt family, a set of brothers who have made quite a name for themselves as prominent bootleggers. Forrest (Tom Hardy), a grizzled veteran with a litany of legends attached to his name, is the patriarch and decision maker of the family, Howard (Jason Clarke) stands as his enforcer, and as the youngest, Jack (Shia LaBeouf) is mostly employed as a gopher, a role that leaves him appropriately disenfranchised. When Forrest rejects the idea of paying a toll to the new law in town, Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) is brought in from Chicago to crack some heads and force the Bondraunts to fall in line. But Rakes underestimates the willpower of the Bondraunts and before long, their fight has turned into an all-out war that speads across the county and puts anyone and everyone in danger.
First off, it should be stated that even with the complaints I am about to register, Lawless is by no means a bad film. In truth, I very much admire the effort put forth here to bridge the gap between summer blockbuster and award-caliber drama, which (I think) was the goal here. It was a bold attempt even if it resulted in a misfire. Most of the acting herein is exquisite, though should we expect anything less from the likes of Hardy, Pearce, Gary Oldman, Jessica Chastain, and Mia Wosikowski? Hardy and Chastain each give restrained but at times magnetic performances that cannot be ignored. Oldman, though (thoroughly) underutilized, brings great presence to his screen time and it is a treat to see the coolness with which his character unleashes the beast in select circumstances. And Pearce delivers the film’s greatest portrayal, instilling Rakes with a wicked, diabolical streak of sheer evil that often drives Lawless when the narrative sputters. The audience immediately DESPISES Rakes and that loathing kept me invested when I otherwise might have given up. Likewise, the cinematography is excellent and the setting is so very appealing. Who among us doesn’t love a good gangster film? There’s just something about the Prohibition era that seems to suck us in.
But for me, so much of the good contained within Lawless is undermined, in equal measurements, by the presence of Shia LaBeouf and the disjointed approach to storytelling of John Hillcoat. Like his acting counterparts, LaBeouf is trying and trying hard to give a great performance and if truth be told, it’s probably his best work yet. Even still, at no point could I shake the feeling that I was watching LaBeouf playing a character, rather than a character played by LaBeouf. I think LaBeouf wants to be a good actor but I don’t think he is and I found his presence incredibly distracting and mismatched in this setting. I can only imagine how much better Lawless would have been with someone like Joseph Gordon Levitt in the place of LaBeouf.
Just as LaBeouf is mismatched to the rest of the cast, so too is Hillcoat to the overall goal of the film. A director with a flair for a sprawling, even keeled approach to drama (see: The Road, The Proposition), going in I questioned whether Hillcoat was the right man for the job of turning this movie into the audience-accepted, modest blockbuster the studio clearly wanted it to be and I kept coming back to that thought. The characters are yearning for development and yet most of them are given only token backstories and then set aside in favor of more screen time for LaBeouf. Oldman is barely used, Hardy’s character never gets a chance to take off, and even Pearce’s development leaves us with far more questions than answers. Moreover, the narrative is extremely slow to unfurl and takes far too many headscratchingly unnecessary tangents that I can’t describe as pointless but which could have been reworked to fit within the core storyline. I’m all for a good slow burn that meticulously makes its way towards the finish line but Hillcoat moves so slowly as to allow for both disinterest and predictability. There is so much ground that could have been covered here but instead the audience is given far more of Shia LaBeouf than any of us have ever asked for. It’s a shame, really, because somewhere within Lawless is a GREAT film that would have dominated the award circuit. It just isn’t this version of the film.