Fans of director John Hillcoat saw two fantastic, desolate dramas out of the Australian directer in the aughts – 2005’s The Proposition, and 2009’s The Road. Although they took place in different parts of the world, and even in different centuries, they were united in dirty worldviews of the desperate trying to turn their lives into something more dignified.
So Hillcoat was a natural choice for Lawless, a Prohibition-era story of a family of moonshiners in distant Appalachia. But Hillcoat’s brand of unnatural grime is almost totally absent in Lawless, instead what he’s delivered is a surprisingly effective but mainstream gangster movie.
Compiled from stories passed down from generation to generation, Lawless takes place in Virginia in the 1920s, and follows a gang headed by brothers – Forrest (Tom Hardy), who’s slow-going but just lethal enough to earn the fear and respect of his neighbors, and his pipsqueak brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf), who wants in on the family business.
Lawless tries to stay focused on being a story about a family, but it’s most successful when Jack is facing up bad guys away from the homestead. Gary Oldman cuts in as a big-time mobster from Chicago – though only for about two minutes – the film would be much better off with more of him.
The big bad comes in the form of a special agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce). Disrupting an understanding between moonshiners and local law enforcement, Rakes is sent in by the state government to clean up the county, but instead attempts to extort the distillers.
Rakes may be on the right side of the law, but he’s the biggest gangster in the film. With an unnatural disgust of dirt and the unclean, the dry slime Pearce spits out is big and ridiculous, down to the centimeter-wide part in his hair.
It’s scenery-chewing, but scenery-chewing is easy to overlook when it’s backed up with the fierce violence his character – and the film on the whole – undertakes. It’s less about gore here than it is about sharp sound production of bone displacement, and drops of computer-generated flecks of blood just barely exploding from fists. Lawless will cause quick intakes of breath and quiet “Ooo!”s. In this film, it hurts just to watch.
That violence pulls a lot of weight in the film. Shootouts and torture scenes scattered throughout are sharp and tense, and while the story works on its own, the beat-downs are what gets the film moving.
Lawless defies Hillcoat’s filmography to become a total guy’s movie, consisting of badassdom and love stories existing more for its sex appeal than anything else. It’s a fun watch, one made even more appealing by a talented cast that, in addition to those already mentioned, includes Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska.
But therein lies the problem – Lawless works, but given its talented director and cast, expectations have led to a different kind of film – a darker and more gripping film – that could have worked even more. But for an slightly unconventional mob movie, it’s hard to think of much that Lawless does wrong.