Lawless (DVD review)


I am not fully convinced of the talent of Shia LaBeouf. Perhaps it’s because he was launched on to the world surrounded by CGI robots in the Transformers films, or because he was touted as The Next Big Thing when his talent was unproved, or it might simply be that I find him annoying, and the accounts of his lack of professionalism are less then endearing .

His acting seems a little too calculated, and you can almost see the gears working behind the smooth features of his still-youthful face. It wasn’t always so; I think his work in Holes is near-perfect, and it’s easy to see why Hollywood took notice of him after that, seeing in him a brilliant mix of Dustin Hoffman gauchery and Tom Hanks charm.

He may yet surprise: we will have to wait and see how he holds up in grown-up fare like Nymphomaniac and Charlie Countryman. In the meantime, his detractors will be pleased to learn that he spends most of Lawless getting the shit kicked out of him.

Based on the true story of the Bondurant brothers, a family of moonshiners in Franklin County, Virginia during Prohibition, Lawless is a tense, violent drama, a rural gangster film. Like almost everyone else in the area, it seems, the brothers run bootleg whisky around without much fuss or bother: a small bribe to the local sheriff is enough to let them carry on their business (supplying hooch to big-city gangsters). Then Guy Pearce shows up as a special deputy sent from Chicago intent on shutting them down. He has little time for country niceties, and soon ignites a bloody cycle of murder and vengeance.

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Although he’s on the side of law and order, Pearce is really quite larcenous, as he steals just about every scene. With his hair severely parted, no eyebrows, dandified clothes, curious accent and a ruthless, violent streak, his performance reminds you why he continues to be one of the most watchable actors around. When he’s not intimidating the local hicks by beating them up or having them tarred and feathered, he’s oozing soft-spoken menace at Jessica Chastain, and all the while doing everything he can to convince people he’s not “a nance”. One of the film’s most disturbing scenes has Pearce in his hotel room, quoting Scripture and grooming himself in the mirror, while a naked crying girl sits on the bed. We don’t exactly know what’s happened here, or why the girl is sitting on a newspaper (does he not want her to soil the bedspread?).

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Distilling and running moonshine is, of course, a dangerous way to make a living, but there aren’t many other choices in the dirt-poor Appalachian mountains, which seem to be filled with rednecks, simpletons and religious maniacs. The religious mania is represented by a Mennonite sect whose service includes what sounds like make it up as you go singing, and Mary Magdalene style feet-washing. Mia Wasikowska is in this mix as LaBeouf’s forbidden love-interest – the preacher’s daughter, no less – and her wan beauty has never been better used: the other actors dress up and slick their hair down and act ‘thirties’; she looks as if she stepped right out of the period.

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There is a parallel love-story between Jessica Chastain and the oldest brother, mumbling Tom Hardy. After his baroque performance as Bane, it’s refreshing to see how understated he is here. He’s barely audible, but he’s riveting to watch. Hardy is undone by Chastain, though: when she comes naked to his room, he dumbly asks “what are you doing?” Their love story is the soul of the film, and I wish more of it had been explored.

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Hardy would like a quiet life, but he knows that’s not possible, so he has to make sure people are scared of him. He says and does little: he grunts a lot and stares at the ground. But when he does explode into violence, it’s shocking and heartbreaking how effective he is. Acting students should watch how he and Pearce play their scene together to see two great actors at work, and it’s a shame that the film doesn’t allow for a scene between Hardy and Gary Oldman, who makes a too-brief appearance as a gangster.

With a setting such as this, rich in Southern Gothic, Lawless could have descended into a sub-par prohibition melodrama, a warmed-up The Untouchables by way of Deliverance and Winter’s Bone. What saves it is the acting and the script by Nick Cave, who doesn’t shy away from violence or the reasons for it. Cave also supplies much of the soundtrack, a curious blend of traditional American folk and modern hits made over. The director is fellow Australian John Hillcoat. Perhaps their outsider perspective on this very American story is what ensures Lawless is a cut above.

But it still should be better than it is, considering the talent involved. It has I think too many strands to follow, and so feels a little disjointed. It didn’t do great business, but I think the title, which sounds like an action film, and being released in the dumping ground of January, both did a disservice to it.

And LaBeouf? Well, he’s actually pretty good in it.


Verdict: Three Knuckledusters out of Five

Lawless, based on The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant. Screenplay by Nick Cave. Directed by John Hillcoat. Starring Shia Labeouf, Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Jason Clarke, Dane DeHaan, Noah Taylor, and Gary Oldman. The DVD includes a behind-the-scenes featurette, a brief history of moonshine, and a feature commentary by Hillcoat and author Matt Bondurant.


3 thoughts on “Lawless (DVD review)

  1. Good review Niall. I didn’t mind Shia in this one as much. Then again, I usually don’t mind him in anything he does. As for the movie itself, it was pretty damn tense when it wanted to be. However, other times, it was just way too slow and only broke up the tension in the climax it was obviously building-up to.


    1. like i said, he’s actually okay in it. i am curious about his performance in “Charlie Countryman”, and not curious about his performance in “Nymphomania” (he sounds like he has put on a very dodgy English accent in that one)


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