This is one of those films that feels like it was taken away from the director at some point in editing and tampered with. What made it out of the sheering is a straight ahead old timey gangster flick with all of the tommy gun shootouts you’d hope for. The trouble is that with director John Hilcoat (The Proposition, The Road, and the cut scenes in Red Dead Revolver) in charge, it should be more than just entertainment. The guy has proven himself time and time again as a genre filmmaker who likes to push gritty guy movies into the art house through hefty doses of existential angst. There’s nothing to prompt academic essay writing here and while that will inevitably bring in more cash at the box office, it also guarantees that the movie will vanish from memory pretty quickly.
The film is based on the true story of the bootlegging Bondurant brothers in 1931 Franklin County Virginia. They were led by the eldest brother Forrest (Tom Hardy), who allegedly couldn’t die and survives a few gunshots and a slit throat in the movie to support the legend. At the start the movie Forrest runs the family business out of a dusty roadside restaurant that slings moonshine to truckers. Then the family’s youngest brother played by Shia Labeouf comes up with a plan to ship the liquor all over the county and turns it into big business. In the 30s, that tends to attract attention to bootlegging operations and soon the local law wants a cut of the profits. Forrest disagrees and so a dandy Special Deputy named Rakes (Guy Pearce) comes in to torture people and shift the balance. With that a good old fashion gangster war kicks off and many people will have to die. Plus Labeouf and Hardy also have two love interests in Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska, but they don’t really do much other than slow the plot down.
The pathetic roles given to two actresses as respected as Chastain and Wasikowska are the real sign that this movie was chopped up after Hilcoat submitted his cut. Their scenes seem to jump around and end abruptly, suggesting abandoned subplots for the underused actresses. Another confusing element is Gary Oldman’s rival gangster Floyd Banner. Oldman is absolutely brilliant in the film, giving one of the classic madman portrayals he used to specialize in during the 90s. Unfortunately he’s barely in the movie, playing an incidental role in a few scenes that is a waste of his talent. It feels like at one point Lawless was a multicharacter tapestry of a gangster tale that’s awkwardly been sheered down to a more manageable level. Whatever may or may not be missing, the film we got has been streamlined to focus on the Bondurant brothers, which is a mixed blessing to say the least. That means the most screentime goes to Shia who trots out his “fast-talking wimp in over his head” persona one more time. He’s fine at playing that limited role, but occasionally Hilcoat asks him to dig a little deeper and those scenes inevitably come off as embarrassing, like a Disney TV actor struggling to do Shakespeare. On the plus side Tom Hardy is the secondary lead as Forrest and he is fantastic. He once again pulls out an oddball voice to define the character and the longer you stick with it the more natural it sounds. Hardy plays no less than a walking legend and speaks few words. Yet purely through movement, small flickers of emotion and good humor, the actor vividly creates the most fully rounded character in the film. Hardy is fast becoming the best actor of his generation, it’s just a shame the movies that surround him are rarely as good as his performances.
John Hilcoat’s stylistic ticks are all in Lawless from those endless baron landscapes to the haunting period soundtrack (both of which even made it into Red Dead Redemption). Huge passages of the film feel like the work of the director and are unsurprisingly the best sequences in the movie. His patient, wandering tone is completely absent however, with this film more of a rush to the finish line than a satisfying exploration of the dust bowl gangster world. The music is often a perfect mix of period tunes and score, but occasionally deviates into distracting romantic ballads that feel irritatingly out of place. Lawless clearly isn’t the movie the director set out to make. The thing is that it’s hard to tell if it would have necessarily be a better movie. As a two hour bullet bath, the flick is pretty entertaining. Stretched out to 2.5-3 hours that certainly wouldn’t be the case and the characters (particularly Shia) don’t really seem strong enough to sustain much expansion. Of course, it’s impossible to know exactly what’s missing and maybe it’s brilliant. However, this film just doesn’t quite seem to have the ambition of either Hilcoat’s The Proposition or The Road and might be better served by the shorter cut. Regardless, Lawless is definitely one of the best period gangster movies in recent years even if it is flawed and uneven. This thing still ranks far above the disappointing Public Enemies and maybe one day we’ll get a director’s cut Blu-ray that is a lost masterpiece. For now, there are at least plenty of isolated scenes, sequences, and performances to enjoy.