As we go into the final weekend of August, the summer movie season is coming to an end. Big-budget blockbusters are in the rearview mirror as more artful, Oscar-geared flicks begin to pour into theaters. But where does director John Hillcoat’s “Lawless” fit into the picture?
While the graphic violence and gangster shootouts imply it’s a summer film, the period drama is filled with very talented actors, which screams Oscar season. So what category does this film fall into? I’m not quite sure and it seems neither does the film-maker as its narrative and editing seem to jump around so much it’s like the studios couldn’t make up their mid on what demographic they wanted this film to aim for. Read on to find out more on what I liked and didn’t like about “Lawless.”
The movie is based on true events – as recorded in Matt Bondurant’s 2008 novel, “The Wettest County in the World.” In 1930s Virginia, in a backwater town called Franklin, the three Bondurant brothers run a lucrative moonshine business during the prohibition. The eldest of the three Forrest (Tom Hardy) is quiet, but he’s a straight-talker who doesn’t sugarcoat what he means. The second sibling is Howard (Jason Clarke), a vicious loose-cannon when he needs to be. The third and final brother is Jack (Shia LeBeouf), the most reserved of the three. He is not inclined to violence and just wants to figure out his future.
Trouble arises when local mobsters from nearby cities begin to spread and take over bootleg business in a bloody and murderous fashion. To make matters worse, a new “special deputy” from Chicago named Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) is assigned to handle the local bootleggers. He decides to offer them a deal, part of their profits for the ability to keep up their illegal activities. When Forrest refuses to go along with that idea, a war is started between Rakes and his law enforcement cronies and the Bondurant brothers that will cause many deaths and heartache on both sides. Can these brothers stand up to the full force of the law and after the dust settles will their even be a victor if there are casualties on both sides?
As is the norm in depression-era films, the lawbreakers are the protagonists and the police are seen as the antagonists, but the main bad guy is the insane and sadistic Rakes, with Guy Pearce nearly unrecognizable in the role. All of the performances were top-notch, but the two that stood out for me were Tom Hardy and Shia LeBeouf. They had the most interesting characters and the recounted events seemed to focus on their story-lines. While the first half focuses on Hardy’s character and his roughness, the latter half is fully immersed in telling LeBeouf’s story.
The two female leads who get mixed up in the escalating war are Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain), an exotic dancer from Chicago who is trying to escape the gangster wars in the big city, and Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska), a preacher’s daughter who is stuck in nearly Amish living and is excited by the outside world. While both are compelling characters, their backgrounds are only briefly touched upon in favor of focusing on the Bondurant brothers, the legend surrounding them and their struggle to stay on top in the moonshine business in the small town.
And Gary Oldman’s gangster Floyd Banner is exciting and fun, but he is under utilized as he is only in two scenes and then never seen again. While the look of the film is compelling, the editing of the film seems to jump around and kind of dishevels the overall narrative.
The movie could have been released in the middle of the summer if it was promoted more, but seems confident in its place at the end of summer. The performances and feel of the film are interesting and they draw you in, but somewhere between the writing, shooting and editing it appears that somebody’s mind changed on what they wanted the end product to be and this causes the film to have a fractured feel to it.
The action is fun, the locations are beautiful and the movie is enjoyable, but I just wished the studio had enough confidence in the end to treat it like and release it as a summer film. I think it is worth checking out and it will be equally as enjoyable to everyone, especially those that love gangster movies, old period films and the nostalgia they bring.
“Lawless,” which is in theaters now, is rated R for strong bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity. It also stars Dane DeHaan, Chris McGarry, Bill Camp, Lew Temple, Noah Taylor and Alex Van.
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