After the release of "Gangster Squad" got pushed out to next year, I consoled myself with the knowledge that I could still get my old-timey ne'er-do-well fix off of "Lawless."
Sure, Depression-era Virginia wilderness isn't quite the substitute for the glamorous L.A. glory years, but watching Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy and Jessica Chastain chew the scenery (which is rife with bootlegging, corruption and backwoods intrigue, might I add) for just under two hours can't possibly be too much of a let-down.
Sadly, I think I may have put this bottle of movie moonshine on too high of a pedestal. Its spirits are well-intentioned, but it has all the ups and downs of a rail alcohol bender. I didn't wind up with a headache, but I did leave the theater wondering what happened to that attractive, intriguing film I thought I was spending my time with.
Based on a novel/true story from Depression-era Franklin County, Va., "Lawless" is the story of the supposedly indestructible Bondurant brothers and their bootlegging ring. After their steady local enterprise falls into conflict with corrupt Chicago deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) and the encroaching influences of gangster magnate Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), Jack (Shia LaBeouf), Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) fall deeper into the illicit world and its deadly consequences.
With all these characters running around getting into trouble, the plot was bound to be a mess. An ably managed mess to be sure, but a mess nonetheless. "Lawless" focuses mainly on Jack – even taking him as a narrator when necessary – as he rises in the family ranks from timid shipment driver to a showboating wheeler and dealer. The problem with this approach, however, is two-fold.
First, he doesn't make for a very interesting or relatable character. Almost all of Jack's success is made on dumb luck and rash judgements, but he plays it off like it was all part of the plan – in particular to his trusting friend and partner Cricket (Dane DeHaan) and love interest, Bertha (Mia Wasikowska). Second, he leeches screen time away from Rakes' and Banner's storylines, which reduces them to bit parts that are roughly explained and consequently end up clogging up the film's progression.
It's a shame the plot is forced to jump around so much between characters to keep things going. At its heart, "Lawless" is a good story with quality performances. Despite the sheer amount of stuff going on, director John Hillcoat ("The Road") keeps the frenetic pace in check and still manages to paint a rich picture of the era. Tom Hardy continues to log esteem with his turn as Forrest, and Chastain's role as the enigmatic Maggie Beauford adds a touch of high-class luster to the rustic backdrop.
In spite of its shortcomings, "Lawless" emerges strong, thanks in no small part to the sheer prowess of its cast. The film is a lot like a spinning plate show – if any one of the plates go down, the show turns to chaos and the act is ruined. But, its many actors manage to keep a firm command of their characters and carry the plot through to the end (regardless of the length of their time on screen). It's a tenuous balance, but it's just enough to prevent "Lawless" from crashing to the ground.
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