Lawless proves a weak brew of Prohibition violence and revenge
Directed by John Hillcoat with screenplay by Nick Cave, Lawless tells the tale of the infamous Bondurant brothers who brewed moonshine in the Prohibition era which helped fuel Chicago’s criminal underworld, and the special agent sent in to stop them.
Loosely based on truth, it’s violent, bloody and macho, and while it seems we are supposed to root for the bootleggers just trying to turn a profit in the Depression and against the vilified law enforcers, there’s nothing really to care about either way. The first half of the film is a collection of staccato scenes with no real sense of cohesion, and by the time some sort of climax is reached it’s too late for the viewer to wish for either side to triumph.
In an interview with the Guardian, Cave described the film as not so much a “true story as a true myth”, and these few words do capture an essence of the film. There’s definitely an element of the legend about the Bondurants: their self-proclaimed invincibility, the mad brother, the bad brother, and the baby brother whose coming of age could be seen as the lynchpin of the narrative.
Tom Hardy plays the bad brother, but he’s just not quite bad enough despite his sotto voce grunts and super-human survival. Equally, Jason Clarke isn’t quite mad enough even after three days on his home-brewed moonshine. And Shia LaBeouf, the youngest sibling eager to prove his mettle, plays his part nicely enough but doesn’t demand any real empathy. There’s no tangible sense of brotherhood between any of them which makes the half-hearted revenge thread difficult to believe. The two female roles, love interests for Hardy and LaBeouf’s characters, are played well enough but the characters themselves are disappointingly insipid.
Guy Pearce probably gives the stand-out performance as the sneering, reptilian agent sent in to clean up the hooch-brewers, but it’s not clear why he’s quite so vile or why his hair needs to be quite so cruelly parted, and there’s definitely an underlying issue around his sexuality which felt like it could be part of the story but never really was. Gary Oldman’s brief appearances as mobster Floyd Banner are simply too glanced for us to quite buy into how fearsome he is supposed to be.
Overall, it’s a near miss on all counts, character, style and plot, and while the gunfights and violence may please some, there’s simply not enough substance to merit any worth.
Read the Guardian interview with Nick Cave here.
Watch the trailer for Lawless here