If you’ve seen John Hillcoat’s 2005 film, The Proposition, you might experience a touch of deja vu within the first few minutes of his newest film, Lawless. The similarities are instantly striking: The Proposition features three outlaw brothers locked in constant struggle with the local lawmen. Lawless features three outlaw brothers locked in constant struggle with the local lawmen. The Proposition blurs the lines of morality between the cops and the crooks, with members of both parties ranging from sociopathic to benevolent. The lines of morality in Lawless? Pretty similar, if to a lesser degree. Add a strong underlying sense of family and a tendency to be absolutely relentless when laying into the blood and gore and you’ve got the beginnings of a pretty long list.
Yet for all those similarities, Lawless ends up feeling like it’s own unique animal.
And a pretty terrific animal, at that.
So here’s the rundown on the film’s basic premise. Based on a true story (specifically, on a book written by one of the protagonist’s grandchildren), Lawless plants us firmly in the heart of Prohibition-era Virginia, where the Bondurant boys (Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke, respectively), are the local kings of the moonshine still. But problems for the Bondurant boys are twofold. First, they’re greeted with a new face in town- Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a greased-up, moral-free Chicago cop with a vicious streak and a passion for taking down moonshiners. And second, youngest brother Jack (LaBeouf) is trying to shed his image as the baby of the family and get some real respect from his hard-edged brothers, often with semi-disastrous results.
This is a classic cops and robbers tale, and it follows a pretty basic path- a simple back-and-forth between the two sides until everything comes to a head in a final showdown between the Bondurants and Rakes. Throw in an occasional romantic sub-plot or two and you’re set.
However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Proposition, with its stark, barren deserts and twisted morals, was able to perfectly encapsulate the rises of violent crime and modernized society of nineteenth-century Austraila. Similarly, the earnest simplicity of Lawless captures the growing American Dream that welled up in the United States in the early twentieth century..
The root of all this is LaBeouf’s Jack. We see Jack’s infatuation with the gangsters he reads about in the paper. We see him souping up an old, beat up roadster and wearing expensive suits that look out of place amongst his country bumpkin brethren. We see him court a traditional girl with a strict, overbearing, Amish-looking zealot of a father, and when Jack wins her heart it’s as clear as day that the country life is crumbling under the advances of the modern American city.
But while Jack is the core of the film’s American nature, he’s not the only player who evokes fond thoughts of the roaring twenties. Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), the big city gangster complete with Tommy gun and pinstripe suit, just oozes the kind of charisma you’d see in a black and white gangster epic. And Jessica Chastain pops off of the screen with the color and beauty of a Hollywood starlet. When Chastain makes her first appearance, it’s as though she was plucked from the celluloid of an old Technicolor film, shining against the dust and dirt of the Bondurants’ backwoods hideout.
This sense of Americana is boosted by the actual structure of the film as well. Jack adds some narration to a scene or two, with a tone just shy of something you’d hear in The Dukes of Hazzard. While a tad on the goofy side, the narration creates the sense that this is a story that’s been told again and again, from generation to generation. Add in the tiniest hint of magical realism (an urban legend that the Bondurant boys just might be immortal) and Lawless almost resembles some kind of American fairy tale- almost like a gruesome companion piece to the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?
And like any fairy tale, the heroes and villains are neatly labeled. Lawless is never shy about who we should be rooting for (unlike in The Proposition, which I swear I’ll eventually stop bringing up), and the Bondurants clearly fall on the side of “good guys.” Granted, they’re also violent thugs, but these moral grey areas tend to be glossed over in the fervor of barfights and car chases.
The violence itself even displays a Bondurant bias. When Rakes commits gruesome, unspeakable acts, they’re done seemingly at random and you’ll always see every grim detail onscreen. When the Bondurants spill blood, it’s always motivated by revenge or justice. The physical act itself is even hidden off camera or shown only after the fact. A quick note for the squeamish- this is not a film to shy away from graphic violence. The bloodletting is gruesome and very matter-of-fact. As if that wasn’t enough, every little human detail is on display to make things seem even more immersive. If an incidental character is wounded in a gunfight, you’ll hear his wailing linger on through the entire battle. If a character is mortally wounded, you’ll see an unsettling close-up of the panic in his eyes.
Moments like these, strong as they are, are made even stronger when every actor is bringing their A-game. Oldman, Chastain and Pearce are all consistently terrific actors, and it’s no surprise that they can work wonders alongside a talented director and a well-written script. Shia LaBeouf, however, is an actor I’ve only experienced through wonders like the Transformers movies or the most recent Indiana Jones, and it’s fair to say my hopes weren’t particularly high in that regard (especially when LaBeouf is in the lead role). So I found myself surprised at how much I enjoyed his performance. He doesn’t steal the show by any means, but he’s believable as a Prohibition-era Virginian while managing to capture the right mix of swagger, earnestness and naivety to be a genuinely likable lead. While I doubt I’ll be revisiting Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen anytime soon, my ears will start to perk up when I hear LaBeouf’s got a new film coming out.
But while LaBeouf may be the lead in this picture, the real star is Tom Hardy. I’ve been following Hardy’s career ever since I saw him in the deranged Bronson back in 2008, and I find myself consistently amazed by just how magnetic his presence is in every film I’ve seen him in. As Forrest Bondurant, Hardy barely speaks more than a few sentences of dialogue in any scene, yet manages to balance the roles of caring brother, ruthless killer and awkward man-child with equal sincerity and intensity. Anyone who saw this year’s The Dark Knight Rises has seen what Hardy can do with just his eyes and his body language, and those same talents are equally as impressive here.
Overall, I’d be hard pressed to find a reason not to recommend Lawless. The only real downside to the film is the simplicity of the story, hovering somewhere between basic and bare-bones. Beyond that, however, Lawless is by far one of the best things I’ve seen in theaters all year. Terrific performances by every actor, gorgeous cinematography, and a somber, bluesy soundtrack by Nick Cave (who, coincidentally, also wrote the screenplay). I really can’t recommend this more highly. If you’re in the mood for something decidedly old fashioned but still able to keep you on your toes, this film should just about do it.