Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Lawless (2012) – Review

Review: Lawless is an engaging gritty crime drama wrapped up in an American tall-tale. The film is about three Bondurant brothers, bootleggers in Great Depression era Virginia, who find themselves in a fight for survival when a government agent, Charlie Rakes, comes to eradicate them from their way of life. Director John Hillcoat does a great job with the crime drama aspect of the film. It is appropriately violent, while also including the iconic character archetypes and imagery of the era – particularly: gangsters using tommy guns (as seen in visually splendid scene of local gangster Floyd Banner laying waste to a rival). Hillcoat gets the tone and the grittiness of the era just right. Throughout, the film is visually brilliant, as the greatest care has been given to the set design, costume design and the perfect locations for the story. However, where the narrative goes a bit off track is between whether this is a gritty crime drama about bootleggers or an American legend about a family of brothers who seem to be immortal. The ton is conflicting between these two elements (which both play large roles in the narrative). The legend about the brothers, specifically Forrest, being invincible works within the construct of the crime drama to an extent, but Hillcoat takes it a bit too far leaving the film feeling a bit hokey. Almost as if Hillcoat is portraying the story of the Bondurants (a true story) as one of America’s tall-tales (like John Casey or Paul Bunyan). Jack’s voiceover narration mixed with the (all wrapped up in a nice bow) epilogue clashes with the meat of the narrative, being the gritty struggle for survival. Hillcoat has folklore slamming up against realism mixing messages and confusing how the audience should feel about the narrative and the characters. The performances are very strong, and Hillcoat gives the characters lots of moments allowing the audience to connect with them and take a stake in the outcome, but all this seems to be devalued by the narrative not having a fluid constant tone. Plus, the epilogue sort of flies in the face of classic gangster narratives (which following Jack the youngest Bondurant, who is the story’s lead character, is otherwise similar to classic gangster narratives detailing his rise and fall), pandering to focus groups who want everything to be okay in the end. Again, it is based on a true story, and thus certain facts (though, often changed in film adaptations) seemingly need to be preserved. Thus, if the Bondurants are that of legend and folklore, why not keep the tone lighter and completely buy into this as being like a tall-tale instead of making it very violent and steeped in realism only to have that sort of be thrown into question in the minds of the audience by a varying tone. All that said, Lawless is still a good drama, with the shifting tone really only serving as a minor issue (holding it back from being great), built on almost complete brilliance from the cast and crew.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: John Hillcoat, while clearly very gifted visually and in his ability to get great performances from his actors, seems to still struggle with aspects of his narrative’s structure. The Road has poor pacing (for example) and this has contradictory elements keeping his films from being great, instead of merely just being good. Composers Nick Cave (who also wrote the film) and Warren Ellis provide a score that both enriches the visual environment and extenuates the emotional depth of the film. Cinematographer Benoit Delhomme does fantastic work as well, visually capturing the era beautifully while also both paying homage to classic gangster films with his imagery and giving the film its own visual identity (often using darkness juxtaposed to daylight to create menace – like the shootout in the bridge or Howard coming from inside the house to attack the sheriffs). Production designer Chris Kennedy, however, does probably the film’s best work, as his overall design and especially his sets are so richly textured. The cast is very good overall, drawing the audience in. Dane DeHaan, Mia Wasikowska and Gary Oldman (who selfishly I wish was in more of the film) are all wonderful in support. Jessica Chastain is very good, playing a Chicago floosy of sorts looking for a different life. Guy Pierce is creepy and strange as Charlie Rakes (he has become one of the great current character actors). Jason Clarke is brutish and simple as Howard Bondurant. Tom Hardy steals every scene he is in (and the film) as Forrest. His presence commands attention. Shia LaBeouf is decent in the film (though maybe slightly miscast). He is eager and naïve at first but weighs the consequences of his actions.

Summary & score: As a big fan of gangster films, I was not disappointed in Lawless, as it is a solid crime drama with great performances and visuals, but it also a tad corny. 7/10


  1. Great review Geoffrey. Loved the cast, loved the action, and loved the look, but I just didn’t love the pace. Too slow at times and could have been sped up just a bit.

  2. It was a little slow, true. I think it was because it wanted to be more than just a crime drama. It tried to fit in more than the narrative would seemingly allow for.