Guest Movie Review: Lawless
As any baseball scout will tell you, there’s no way to predict the future. No matter how sure you are, players you’ve been watching for weeks, months or even years in high school and college can defy your expectations and turn into something completely different from what you were expecting. For every All Star and potential Hall of Famer like Joe Mauer, Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr, there are many who never came close to that potential they exhibited in school. The Florida Marlins took Chad Mottola fifth overall in the 1992 draft, one spot before the New York Yankees selected Derek Jeter. You might have heard of Derek. I’d be shocked if you remember Chad. The Yanks are not without their own missteps, having picked flame-throwing pitcher Brien Taylor with the first overall pick the year before. It was only the second time the perennially-winning New Yorkers had garnered the initial selection in the draft, and it turned out to be a bad one: due to an off-season injury, Taylor never reached the majors. And in just the second baseball draft, way back in 1966, Mets catcher Steve Chilcott became one of the biggest busts in the history of the sport, never getting close to the big time. The kicker? The next man taken was the legendary “Mr. October,” Reggie Jackson.
Hollywood operates on a similar set of principles. In recent years, we’ve seen the decline of many famous careers; Tom Hanks, Adam Sandler, Julia Roberts and Eddie Murphy have all come up short in one place that really makes the difference: the box office. It’s the natural progression of things: eventually everything popular becomes less so, and when that happens, the people in charge start to look elsewhere for the Next Big Thing. Every young gun in Hollywood wants to be it, and there are dozens if not hundreds of faces you don’t yet recognize currently running around with the hope that they’ll take home million dollar contracts and Academy Awards. Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Sam Worthington, Chris Pine, Zoe Saldana, Chris and Liam Hemsworth, Zac Efron, Ryan Gosling and Emma Watson are just on the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot of competition, and nobody knows whether these actors and actresses will still be relevant in a year’s time, let alone where they’ll be a decade from now.
A great many examples of that potential talent are shown off in John Hillcoat’s latest period film Lawless. With a quartet of up-and-coming talent, the film is as much a showcase of what they can do as it is a historical-fiction tale about moonshiners in the Prohibition era. Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska and Shia LeBeouf were put out front knowing that they had a lot to prove, and that a hit here would help solidify their futures in the industry. Despite that pressure, it’s fortunate that these young actors and actresses are really what make the movie worth watching, and not just veteran talents Gary Oldman and Guy Pearce.
Lawless is based on the book The Wettest County in the World, the novel by Matt Bondurant which served as the fictional account of the moonshine operation once run by his grandfather and grand-uncles in Franklin, Virginia. Whether or not the story Hillcoat and screenwriter (and frequent collaborator) Nick Cave tell is based on anything real might be up for debate, but nevertheless Hillcoat – with a colorless and bleak depiction of the wilds similar to what he used in 2009’s The Road – paints the rural countryside with a personality all its own, full of violence, despair, and potential.
LaBeouf plays Jack Bondurant, the youngest, smallest, and most cowardly of the Bondurant boys. Striving to live up to the legacy of his older brothers Forrest (Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke), Jack constantly finds himself on the outside, since Forrest doesn’t believe he can put much faith in his scared little brother. The Bondurants are the unofficial leaders of Franklin County, and under Forrest’s direction, Franklin has prospered thanks to their very illegal business dealings. Things begin to go wrong when Chicago and its criminal element show up for a piece of the action, led by “Special Deputy” Charlie Rakes (Pearce). Naturally, the Bondurants refuse to give in to the threats and violence of the menacing Rakes, and eventually become the county’s only hope of independence.
Lawless is an excellent opportunity to exhibit the talents of many of its performers, and almost all of them give it their best shot. Their efforts are stymied however by Hillcoat, who doesn’t seem to be in control of the pace of the film most of the time. He doesn’t pussyfoot around the violence of the criminal element, and that’s commendable, but when that violence does occur, the bloodshed feels completely out of touch with the rest of the narrative. Perhaps it’s not entirely the director’s fault however: Cave’s screenplay deserves its share of the criticism. Long stretches of good stuff are punctuated by Jack’s excessive and needless narrative voiceovers, showing the obvious places in which Cave did not know how otherwise to proceed. The dialogue is excellent at times, but at others it seems to aim for the cheap laugh (Forrest’s monosyllabic grunts being the biggest offender). Inconsistency rules the film, and it’s obvious that Hillcoat stuck it out not because the movie was better for it, but because it was his friend who wrote the script.
At least the acting does its absolute best to compensate. Tom Hardy once again impresses me with his ability to meld into whatever character he chooses. Watch any of Hardy’s films, from Bronson to The Dark Knight Rises to Warrior and even to This Means War and tell me where those characters have any similarities to one another. In this movie, Hardy’s a smart, lethal force of nature, a performance made more impressive by his relative moderation of speech. He speaks more in glares and gutturals, but when he does deign to say something, others – including the audience – listen. It’s an impressive feat, and one that distances him from his other performances. The film’s two women, Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska, might not serve any overarching purpose beyond love interests, but both are given meaty dialogue and one-upmanship over their male counterparts, not something you often see in these kinds of roles. For Chastain, it’s less impressive than the excellent work she did in 2011, but when your previous efforts include excellent appearances The Tree of Life, The Help and The Debt, “merely” putting forth a great, provocative performance is disappointing only by comparison. And Wasikowska is her usual solid self, even if I’m still not entirely certain that she has any long-term potential. Of the four young actors present in this film, only LaBeouf fails to genuinely impress me, his Jack Bondurant seeming more like the ancestor of Transformers’ Sam Witwicky than anything else the film might justify. His hyper-dramatic style of acting grows thin quickly, and one of the film’s main problems is that you wish the story had been told from anybody else’s perspective but his.
For Guy Pearce, the situation must seem familiar. In the nineties and early 2000’s, he was arguably in the same kind of company that we now find Hardy and the others in today. With starring roles in LA Confidential, Momento and cult favorite The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Pearce was destined to be the next big thing in Hollywood. But then The Time Machine happened, Pearce decided to step away from mainstream movies, and only recently has he begun appearing in supporting roles for major films like The Hurt Locker and Prometheus. Here he shows off just what made him such a hot property in the first place, absolutely wallowing in the ruthless, pitiless role of Rakes and mastering every scene in which he arrives. Gary Oldman and Jason Clarke do their parts as well, although Oldman’s mobster Floyd Banner does not play so nearly as big a role as the trailers might have led you to believe. Still, his veteran presence is a welcome addition when used, and he doesn’t miss a beat when on the big screen.
Lawless is imperfect in many ways; the story wanders and much of the dialogue is far too cheesy. We should be subtly laughing with the characters on the screen, not laughing at their misfortunes. But the biggest problem with this film is that it does nothing to cement the legacies of the young actors and actresses who joined the cast. Hardy, Chastain and many others will be fighting for the futures of their careers in the coming years. I can’t think of any time in the past where there has been so much competition for the upper echelons of Hollywood royalty, and we will constantly be looking forward to seeing who is the next George Clooney, Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie. It might not seem this way now, but there’s every chance that Tom Hardy become the next Guy Pearce instead of the next Mel Gibson, or that Jessica Chastain might fail to reach the pedestal of Helen Mirren and instead equate with Geena Davis. If they falter, studios will turn to the rest of the crowd to pick out a new face. To remain among the best, they will have to work in the best movies, ones that will challenge their skills while still allowing them to wow us with their talents. Lawless is not such a movie, with only the quality of its cast making us believe that it ever could be.
John C. Anderson is a freelance writer and movie enthusiast living in Boston. To read his latest film reviews, check out Hello, Mr. Anderson.