Review by The Isolated Moviegoer:
After vividly capturing the grit of colonial Australia (The Proposition) and post-apocalyptic U.S. (The Road) in his previous films, depression-era Virginia seems like a natural fit for John Hillcoat. The dusty, backwoods feel of the South plays to the visual and tonal strengths of his earlier works, as does a tale of bootlegging brothers standing up to authorities.
Perhaps it’s too obvious a fit for the filmmaker. Lawless indeed sounds great on paper, but in getting that world onscreen, Hillcoat flicks on the autopilot and lets his talented pieces work things out on their own. In desperate need of direction, the lazy final product is an odd assortment of parts that never fit together and an all-around missed opportunity.
As the three Bondurant brothers run their moonshining business and resist the federal lawmen who want a cut of the profits, Lawless attempts to hit all the marks that such a story suggests and some that it doesn’t. Working from a messy Nick Cave script (who also provides a painfully obvious Appalachian score), the film is a smattering of bootlegging cliches with a few half-realized gangster pieces thrown in. Pairing borrowed character types with oddly modern production design, the film feels made by people who’ve seen a few movies and read a couple of books on the subjects, but are incapable of parlaying that knowledge into something original. Instead, the guilty parties think that multiple half-assed love stories fit alongside scenes of throat-slashing and castration, and in failing to commit to a singular approach, the film quickly becomes a wasteland in which anything goes but few things go together.
The performances that emerge from such a landscape are equally disparate. With the likes of Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, and Gary Oldman on board, there’s potential for some serious dramatic showdowns. Allowed to roam free, however, each actor shoots for something wildly different, little of which meshes. Hardy’s Forrest Bondurant may simmer with menace, mumbling in the lower register like he’s auditioning for Sling Blade, yet has zero chemistry with Pearce’s eyebrow-less, Chicwago-via-Christoph-Waltz federal agent. Culture clash may be the point, but with two actors each going this big, someone must step from behind the camera to keep them focused.
Such guidance unfortunately never arrives, a notable shame considering the talent involved. Hillcoat at least recognizes the potential fire of pairing Hardy with Jessica Chastain, and though these exciting young stars mostly live up to to their joint promise, they only share so much screen time and neither are billed as the film’s headliner. That honor falls to Shia LaBeouf, a likeable actor who’s nonetheless never felt ready for prime time. Lawless is primarily the tale of his Jack, the “innocent” brother, and his transition into the family business. Consistent with the rest of the film, however, that transformation never receives the care it deserves and is further diluted by Jack’s unfortunate courtship with a preacher’s daughter (Mia Wasikowska).
Far from the crackling period piece it wants to be, Lawless is a technical slop-fest that depicts its talented performers as equally awry. Sleepwalking through familiar territory, Hillcoat does his cast and the material few favors, making the film an unexpected blight on the resumes of all involved.
Rated R for strong bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity.
Lawless is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.
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