Monday, March 4, 2013

Lawless Underwhelms Despite Ingredients for Greatness

The Bondurant boys don't lay down for nobody.

As a big fan of the elegiac and uncompromisingly grim poetry director John Hillcoat wrought with The Proposition and The Road, I was massively anticipating his latest film, Lawless.

Reteaming with Proposition screenwriter Nick Cave for a crime drama about a mythic family of moonshiners during the Prohibition era just seemed like the perfect fit for Hillcoat’s sensibilities. And then, on top of that, he landed a stacked cast, including Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Gary Oldman and regular collaborator Guy Pearce, to name just a few.

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t come close to reaching the epic heights of my expectations, or, more importantly, its own straining ambition. And believe me this venture is ambitious, as it reaches to cover similar themes to those explored in films as diverse as The Godfather and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (two personal favorites).

Externally it has all the trappings of a classic – an authentic milieu, great archetypes, a distinguished style, and immersive music (courtesy of Cave and Warren Ellis) – but it’s mostly hollow otherwise, and so it ends up coming across like a somewhat tired version of a familiar story.

In some ways it reminded me of an inverted Gangster Squad, another recent take on the crime genre that was also clichéd, but had the good sense to be fun and bubbly besides. Here, the craftsmanship, authenticity and scope are so keenly evident that you’re forced to take the enterprise at face value, which more apparently exposes the shortcomings.

Set in 1931, Lawless focuses on the Bondurant brothers, a trio of Virginia moonshiners comprised of the taciturn Forrest (Hardy), the hard-living Howard (Jason Clarke), and the sensitive Jack (Shia LaBeouf). Thanks to Forrest and Howard, the family has become legendary as indestructible forces of nature, but, as the runt of the litter, Jack seems made of different cloth… until, well, he doesn’t.

The Bondurant’s use their gas station/diner as a front for their illegal activities, but the times are changing, and soon shady government officials are trying to force their way into getting a piece of the pie from all area moonshiners. Unlike their scared compatriots in distillery, the Bondurants resist the shakedown, drawing the ire of Charlie Rakes (Pearce), a fiendish deputy brought in from Chicago to make the locals toe the line.

Guy Pearce brings a fey creepiness to his villainous role.
It’s a great shell for a narrative, but the film is largely limited by half-baked characterizations. Jack and Forrest are the leads of the film, but they come across as pale versions of Michael Corleone and Bud White (Russell Crowe’s LA Confidential character), respectively. Both men are given love interests (Mia Wasikowska as the preacher’s daughter and Chastain as a dancer from Chicago), but the relationship are superficially drawn at best, and the actresses are largely wasted.

Nevertheless, the cast, which includes a cameo from Oldman as gangster Floyd Banner, is uniformly solid. Pearce gives the most memorable turn as the perversely grotesque Rakes, a man who greatly overestimates his ability to dominate the locals because he considers himself above their hick way of life. His scenery chewing expressly contrasts with the more measured approach of the rest of the cast, which is supposedly a stark change from the more grounded heavies in the source material, The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant (Jack’s grandson).

One wishes one or two other liberties had been taken in an effort to better flesh out what plays like an awfully ordinary and telegraphed tale. As it is, this is an assured film brimming with rich atmosphere, but, unfortunately, it’s not much more than that. B-