For most of 2012, I was excited about seeing one film and that film was Lawless. Why was I so excited about seeing Lawless? Well, first off, I had spent most of the year being bombarded by the film’s genuinely exciting trailer. Seriously, that trailer was more entertaining than 80% of the film that I’ve seen this year. Judging from the trailer, the film was a period piece that took place during one of my favorite decades, the 1920s. The film dealt with bootleggers and I’m proud to say that there’s a few of those on my family tree. The trailer also featured Gary Oldman firing a tommy gun, Jessica Chastain dancing, Guy Pearce acting odd, and Tom Hardy being all tough and Tom Hardy-like.
When I watched that trailer, it didn’t matter that the film starred Shia LeBouf (who has always struck me as being a bit of a whiney actor). It didn’t matter that director John Hillcoat previously wasted good material with his adaptation of The Road. It didn’t even matter that the film was greeted with indifference at Cannes. “Oh,” I told myself, “that’s just the French critics being reflexively anti-American. Lawless has Truffaut written all over it…”
The only thing that tempered my enthusiasm for Lawless was when the first of the 30-second commercials started to appear on television. As opposed to the exciting trailer, these commercials made the film seem rather average and they now put less emphasis on the film’s stylistic excesses and more on the fact that the film was apparently “based on a true story.” The tone of the television spots was so different from that of the theatrical trailer that it was hard not to conclude that the PR geniuses at the Weinstein Company weren’t sure how to sell the film. I found myself wondering if Lawless would be as confused as its ad campaign.
Last Friday, I finally saw Lawless and judged for myself.
Lawless tells the story of the three Bondurant brothers. In the 1920s, these brothers are succesful bootleggers who work out of rural Virginia and who maintain a peaceful coexistence with local law enforcement through a steady supply of bribes. The oldest brother is a taciturn World War I veteran named Forrest (played by Tom Hardy.) The youngest brother is Jack (Shia LeBouf), who idolizes violent gangsters like Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman). The middle brother is Howard (Jason Clarke). Howard spends most of the movie yelling.
Things are peaceful for the Bondurant brothers until, one day, a corrupt and oddly fastidious prohibition agent named Rakes (Guy Pearce) shows up and demands a cut of whatever profit the brothers make from their bootlegging. Forrest refuses and soon Rakes and the Bondurants are engaged in a very violent and bloody war.
That war, however, doesn’t stop Jack from pursuing a relationship with a rebellious preacher’s daughter (played by Mia Wasikowska). Meanwhile, Forrest hires a new waitress to work at the family bar. Maggie (Jessica Chastain) is a former dancer from Chicago and soon, she and Forrest are cautiously pursuing their own relationship. As for Howard, he yells a lot.
Lawless is an odd film. The actors are all well-cast and Shia LeBouf probably gives his first genuinely good performance here. The film’s violent action sequences are well-choreographed and one could even argue that, in the character of Rakes, the film is drawing a very relevent parallel to America’s own modern-day war on drugs. And yet, as I watched the film, I felt oddly detached from the action onscreen and the Bondurants never came to life for me as individual characters that were worth rooting for. I think the ultimate problem with Lawless is the same problem that Hillcoat ran into with The Road. Lawless is a film full of beautiful visuals and striking sequences but none of it seems to naturally flow together. As a result, the film is visually striking but narratively weak.
As a result, Lawless is ultimately a case of the triumph of style over substance. How you react to the film will probably depend on how much importance you put into either one of those two elements. If you’re willing to accept the film simply as a collection of striking visuals (as I was), you’ll find a lot to enjoy in Lawless but if you’re looking for something deeper, you’ll probably be disappointed.
You’re also going to be disappointed if you go to Lawless expecting to see a Gary Oldman film because Oldman is only in about four minutes of the film, his best scene is in the trailer, and his character lacks that touch of eccentric charisma that Oldman typically brings to his villains. Instead, it falls to Guy Pearce to be eccentric and evil and he does a great job. Sporting an accent as odd as his haircut, Pearce brings a brilliantly perverse jolt to even the simplest of line readings. Lawless is at its best when its content to just let Guy Pearce play at being Gary Oldman.