Movie Review: Lawless

By Stephen Rebello

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Lawless is a gory, violent, Prohibition-era barnstormer about three moonshine-brewing brothers in Franklin County, Virginia vs. the federal lawman out to shut them down.


Director: John Hillcoat

MPAA Rating: R

Studio: Filmnation Entertainment

Lawless is a gory, violent, sometimes cartoonish Prohibition-era barnstormer about three prosperous moonshine-brewing brothers in Franklin County, Virginia vs. the federal lawman out to shut them down. Expect fussin’, fightin’ an’ feudin’ a-plenty. Just don’t expect too much more. 

Directed by John Hillcoat (The Road) from a Nick Cave screenplay and adapted from a 2008 Matt Bondurant novel, the film delivers plenty of good ol’ boy fun, and there’s a reasonably enjoyable hillbilly tang to it. But it’s a brew without a real kick, mostly because the moviemakers seem to keep pussyfooting around the show they really want to put on. There’s no escaping how Lawless gets much of its voltage from some deeply odd performances, with stars Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke laying it on as the bootlegging Bondurant brothers and Guy Pearce as their hiss-worthy, nasty-spirited fancy-pants nemesis. The terrific Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain wander in and out as LaBeouf’s and Hardy’s obligatory love interests, but this is an alpha boy’s adventure with no real time for women-folk. The tone is faux mythical, like a TV commercial for toilet paper or beef jerky set in the Old West. Even when faces get smashed, throats slashed and the bullets rip flesh as the banjos plunk and fiddles saw away, cinematographer Benoît Delhomme shoots everything prettily. We get a strong sense of the backwater mayhem, even if it’s glossy, but when it comes to story, let alone heft, there’s not much here we haven’t seen before. LaBeouf is so bright eyed and eager to please that a good rap on the knuckles seems called for, but he’s winning and keeps you watching. The charismatic Hardy is on hand to bring the hulking gravitas, but his patented guttural mumble gets so murky that after a while you may give up trying to figure out what he’s saying.

Even in a good-timey, unsubtle movie like this one, Pearce’s bow-tied, by-the-books prissiness crosses the border into the much too much, and Gary Oldman turns up only briefly as a mobster with a tommy gun who might have wandered off the set of The Untouchables. In the end, Lawless isn’t much more than malicious fun, cornpone twangs, squints, grunts and posing. We just wish Hillcoat and company had gone for the throat.  


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