The first 15 minutes of the film can only be described as too staged. It's almost as if Lawless starts off being a movie imitating a film from the '30s. There's nothing real or genuine to the way people and props are placed, lending the scenes an aura of phoniness that sets the wrong tone from the start of the production and doesn't sort of dissipate until Tom Hardy is given the reins.
Hardy's Bane may have backed down from his Forrest Bondurant as the much-in-demand actor plays the boss of the brothers' moonshining business as both a larger-than-life force of violence and a humble introvert at the same time. How does he pull off such a bizarre personality while at the same time delivering the one character in the film worth rooting for? It's a complicated trick that helps prove why Hardy has recently catapulted to the top of so many directors' "must work with" lists. When Hardy's on the screen, Lawless lives up to all of its potential. Without him, Lawless is mostly lifeless, as neither Shia LaBeouf (playing Forrest's younger brother, Jack) nor Jason Clarke (as the menacing and slightly unhinged brother, Howard) can pull us in in the way Hardy proves capable of with Lawless.
Lawless serves up a good deal of nasty players with more than its fair share of villains, if you add in everyone who opposed the sale of alcohol and made moonshining into such a huge business along with all the rival moonshiners who wanted to knock the Bondurants off their pedestal. Forrest earned a reputation as a man who could not be killed (although that didn't stop his enemies from trying), and his rep helped make the Bondurants' moonshine the local top seller. Fellow moonshiners both respected and hated him, however the main villain of Lawless is unarguably Guy Pearce who plays Special Agent Charlie Rakes, evil incarnate wearing dandy clothes, leather gloves and slicked-back dyed black hair. Rakes wants to take down the brothers, working outside the law to destroy the brothers' business. He's also a sadist who takes great pleasure in other people's pain, and even if you don't agree with the Bondurants way of business, you agree Rakes' approach and his use of the local police as his minions is just plain disgusting.
Others of note include Gary Oldman who shows up in disappointingly too few scenes, playing a Chicago gangster the brothers do business with who may or may not be double-crossing them with Rakes. Dane DeHaan as Cricket, the kid with the golden touch when it comes to mixing moonshine, and Mia Wasikowska, as the daughter of a local minister who attracts the attention of Jack, are terrific in supporting roles (both get more screen time than Oldman). But of the supporting players it's really Jessica Chastain as a former stripper who moves to the Bondurants' small town and moves into their lives - in the case of Forrest, uninvited - who proves to be the film's real breath of fresh air. Chastain's charming and sexy, tough yet feminine love interest for Forrest gives the film a much-needed emotional punch.
The Bottom Line:
Lawless, directed by John Hillcoat (The Road, The Proposition) and adapted from Matt Bondurant's book by Nick Cave, is almost unyielding in its stiffness and stuffiness. Filled with what should have been a colorful assortment of characters, this sporadically violent film holds back far too much. Even the final act doesn't deliver the anticipated wallop, instead coming across as watered-down and disappointingly tame.
Lawless was directed by John Hillcoat and is rated R for strong bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity.
Theatrical Release: August 29, 2012