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Lawless (2012)

Lawless movie review
Photo Credit: Lawless / The Weinstein Company
Setting a story set in the 1920s/1930s is often not a good practice put to use by modern Hollywood. Going back in time with too much star power, not enough complexity and a very showy display of "Damn isn't fun and cool to be a gangster, pallies!?" can break and have broken many era-centric movies. It's one of the reasons I was very hesitant to see Lawless, which on the surface matches a lot of those characteristics.

Director John Hillcoat adapts the historical novel and the legend/true story of the Bondurant brothers. During the Prohibition, Jack (Shia LaBeouf), Forrest (Tom Hardy), and Howard (Jason Clarke) distribute moonshine in a deserted Virginian town. Hidden from civilized city life, the law hunts them down in the form of a brutally, relentless Special Deputy, Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce). Taking the opposite approach of similar genre films, Lawless doesn't drive a point home that mobsters should pay for their moralistic-averting lifestyles. Instead, the story is about rites of passage and brotherly love in the face of adversity.

At the heart of the movie is the youngest brother, Jack - played intensely by Shia LaBeouf. His character usually lets his more powerful siblings do the dirty work. He wants to be a gangster living high on the hog but doesn't necessarily have the fortitude. Bringing complexity to a role that I think could've been a forgotten portrayal by another actor, LaBeouf is the film's backbone. Nearly the entire movie rests on his shoulders for the plot to come together, and he creates a sharp protagonist who experiences the change of the prey becoming a predator.

What perhaps works against Lawless is that the rest of the cast is severely underused. LaBeouf was the star of the show but the rest of the supporting players feel like cameos. Guy Pearce is a creepy villain but doesn't really feel like an asset to the main conflict. Jessica Chastain captures the heart of silent-but-deadly Forest, but their attraction is narrowed down to sexualized glances. Gary Oldman just makes a cameo. The movie is enjoyable while you watch it, but afterwards, there are lingering questions abouto a lot of the story's mechanics.

For nearly half of the two-hour running time, the feud between Bondurant brothers and the law is vehemently dog-eat-dog. Legends are fueled about the family's immortality. The story is strong in showing Jack's evolution but doesn't explore how the town or its citizens are affected by the Bondurant's moonshining business. And, we really don't see the consequences of the city moving in on such a small town whose way of dealing with the law is letting bygones be bygones or exchanging cash deals. When Rakes mercilessly wields brutality against the Bondurants, we see how they hit back just as savagely. The grim, cold Virginian landscape is refreshing to the big city parties but becomes more of a backdrop than its own character. Dramatically the story is balanced with the action sequences, but supporting characters never feel fully developed.

General interest for Lawless is two-fold: the bandits of the 1920s and the cast. While the movie succeeds at bringing a different tale to the table in the gangster genre, the performers are highly underused. While there is a lot of bloodshed, and enough story to tell it right, better pacing and production could've added this Western-Gangster hybrid from feeling it falls short. LaBeouf's performance is truly indelible, and I wish the movie had been a bit more too.

Rating: ★★☆
Have you seen Lawless? What did you think?

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