Director John Hillcoat’s newest effort after 2009’s The Road was initially titled The Wettest County in the World, but was later changed to Lawless, ostensibly because shorter titles make catchier headlines. “Lawless??? More Like, FLAWLESS!!” was probably the review Hillcoat was trying for; and God knows he tried. Whether you love or hate Lawless, you can’t deny that everyone involved certainly wanted to create something memorable. Unfortunately, while Lawless is undoubtedly a decent movie, it falls short of becoming the masterpiece it was clearly shooting for.
In some aspects, however, its efforts pay off; Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, and Jessica Chastain make for a fantastic cast, and Shia LeBouf is more or less able to break free of the twin shackles of “forgettable” and “douche” that have thus far obstructed his career. LeBouf plays the youngest and runtiest of the three Bondurant brothers, who run a successful liquor bootlegging business in Prohibition-era Virginia. LeBouf’s character, Jack Bondurant, has big dreams of turning their humble local business into a full-fledged franchise, but is too much of a pansy to do anything about it. The real leader of the Bondurant pack is the brooding and (seemingly) larger-than-life Forrest Bondurant (Hardy). With middle-child Howard Bondurant (Jason Clarke) acting as Forrest’s right-hand man, the lives of the three Bondurant brothers remain fairly stable until a corrupt Special Deputy from Chicago named Charlie Rakes (Pearce) arrives to crack down on their bootlegging operations. It’s a compelling story that weaves in themes of coming-of-age, family and mythology with top-notch acting, outstanding visual appeal and a machine gun-toting Gary Oldman for whenever the pace turns sluggish. So, why isn’t Lawless the instant classic it ought to be?
The biggest problem with Lawless is the script. While Hardy’s performance as the quietly threatening Forrest is believable and fun to watch, it ultimately falls short due to the lack of depth provided for his character. Lawless seems intended to be a deconstruction of the mythology surrounding American gangsters, but without providing Forrest with development or even characterization beyond “tough-guy-who-is-intermittently-not-tough,” the dissection of his legend feels unfinished. The film also misses crucial opportunities to add emotional resonance to the relationships between its characters. So, while I enjoyed watching each of the characters individually, I was unable to appreciate their interactions with each other in terms of the story’s larger universe. On the whole, the movie felt more occupied with defying conventions and being “gritty” than with producing believable characterization. Lawless, much like the youngest Bondurant brother, seemed like nothing more than a little kid with some big ideas who was too caught up in bad-boy posturing to properly execute.
But that doesn’t mean the movie wasn’t worth watching. By all means, if you enjoy gut-wrenching suspense, brilliant acting, and unromanticized depictions of violence, see Lawless. But don’t go in expecting to see a masterpiece or, for that matter, a memorable contribution to cinema.