Sometimes a movie’s pedigree is just too good to be ignored in spite of mixed reviews. That was certainly true of director John Hillcoat’s newest film Lawless. On paper this movie had everything it needed to be awesome. Hillcoat himself is a major emerging filmmaker, it’s based on what is by all accounts a fascinating true story, and it has a stellar cast which includes Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, and Gary Oldman. And yet, the film got mixed-to-negative reviews coming out of Cannes and continued to polarize critics into its general release. Of course critics were also needlessly hard on Hillcoat’s last film, The Road, so I wasn’t going to be deterred from giving his newest film a go for myself.
Truth be told, the critics are right to be “mixed” on this one, my opinions are certainly what you’d call “mixed.” The thing is, there are aspects of this movie that I absolutely love. Almost every individual scene and performance in the film is solid, some are above solid, there are set-pieces that are among the best I’ve seen all year. And yet, the film is characterized by a baffling inability to make all of these excellent elements congeal into a story that I really cared about. The film is about a family of prohibition-era moonshine runners called the Bondurant brothers (Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, and Jason Clarke) and their battle against a corrupt Federal agent named Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce).
The root problem in the film is that it never really made me like any of these brothers or root for them to succeed in their moonshine empire. At the heart of it, these guys are thugs who defy the law (albeit an antiquated and stupid law) and were more than happy to wade into the violence inherit in that criminal activity, and yet the film never really treats them like anti-heroes. Instead it mostly treats them like a bunch of well intentioned “good ol’ boys” just trying to eke out a living. Sure, they need to kill people occasionally, but they never pick any of their fights and they never seem to harm any innocent people with their criminal activity.
The Bondurant’s opposition is similarly lacking in nuance. Guy Pearce’s Charlie Rakes is an almost cartoonishly evil adversary, the kind of villain who seems to do horrible things just because he seems to think its fun to be evil. Granted, the character is extremely fun to watch. Pearce plays him like this incredibly powerful and meticulous killer who hides behind a badge in order to extort money, kind of like the Michael Shannon character from “Boardwalk Empire” only without any delusions of piety.
Let’s compare this with John Hillcoat’s first film, The Proposition, which was also a period piece about a family of criminals in opposition to a corrupted authority figure. In that film Hillcoat did ask you to empathize with a group of criminals, but he never ignored or denied that they were a group of truly volatile and dangerous bastards. His villain in that film was also larger than life and cruel, but he did what he was doing out of a genuine belief that he was doing right by the area he controlled and that he was justified in his cruelty. He wasn’t just a bastard being a bastard so that he could make money. When the criminal family in that film finally rallied and took down their adversary the audience was left in a much more ambiguous place. Here there’s none of that complicated morality; it’s just a story of good (or at least non-psychotic) versus evil.
So, if you ignore the film’s moral simplicity, does this at least work as some kind of fun crime yarn? Well, not exactly. I don’t think the film really does a very good job of explaining the dynamics of the situation anyway. The film never really explains why the Bondurants are supposed to be any kind of rival for Rakes. Their empire seems to be run by all of four people and operates pretty much out in the open. Rakes knows where these brothers live, what in the world is stopping him from rounding up a dozen federal agents and massacring these guys? The film suggests that this would rile up the locals, but why not just arrest them if this is a problem? There should be plenty of evidence to do so yet the Bondurants mage to continue functioning as an enterprise and Rakes never really bothers them until it becomes convenient for the plot.
I don’t think this movie is all that concerned with the minutia of moonshine running, most of the work of building the Bondurant’s empire is done over the course of a short (albeit quite entertaining) montage. I might go so far as to say that this isn’t a crime film at all, perhaps Hillcoat was trying to get a leg up on Quentin Tarentino in making a “Southern” (a Western set in the South). As the title suggests, these people are living in an untamed and uncivilized backwoods and while there is supposedly a sheriff, he’s corrupt and does nothing to try to stop all the mayhem going on around him. The film operates in a world where matters are solved with guns and with fistfights, its frontier justice from beginning to end.
Fortunately these gun fights and fist fights are excellently choreographed and staged by John Hillcoat, who has consistently proven to be one of this generation’s best directors of violence. This movie is absolutely brutal, throats are cut, strong punches are thrown, and people are hurt badly by bloody retribution. I admired Hillcoat’s audacity and craft in bringing all this to the screen, but it never felt as justified by context as it had in his previous films, at times it kind of felt just sadistic. I also admired his location scouting ability, because he was constantly able to find interesting parts of the Southern woods to fill the screen with. I didn’t get a whole lot out of Nick Cave’s score, which was ambient to the point of being unnoticeable, but there was one musical element to the film that will have everyone talking. Cave has filled the soundtrack with original bluegrass covers of non-period rock and roll songs, most notably The Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat” (with this version apparently refering to moonshine rather than speed).
Maybe the film’s problem is that it’s based on a true story. Perhaps the problem is that Hillcoat let his fascination with this time and place get the better of him and forgot that he needed to make his audience care just as much. Or maybe the problem is that he was too determined to avoid making another film that critics could dismiss as “unpleasant” like they did with The Road and decided to make a more cut and dry film with a simpler morality at its core. The fact remains that what he’s delivered with Lawless is a minor effort. That said, I was never bored while watching the film. It has some very strong moments and that almost makes me want to give it a marginal pass, but the “crime epic” is a very competitive genre with high standards that Lawless just doesn’t live up to in spite of all the sturdy parts.
**1/2 out of Four