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Review: Lawless (2012)

Lawless (2012)

Directed by: John Hillcoat

Premise: Set during Prohibition, a group of Virginia bootleggers are threatened by a Chicago-based gangster attempting to take over the market.

What Works: Lawless is a John Hillcoat picture and those who have appreciated the director’s earlier films such as The Proposition and The Road will find Lawless to be rewarding viewing. The picture is beautifully shot and uses sound well, especially the original music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis who provided music for John Hillcoat’s other feature films. Lawless is a violent picture, sometimes brutally so, but Hillcoat has a frank way of staging and photographing violence in ways that make the audience feel every single bullet wound or punch to the face; that makes Hillcoat’s pictures unique among filmmakers in that he combines the visceral qualities usually found in horror films with the gunplay of action movies and westerns. That combination makes the viewer dread the violence instead of look forward to it. Lawless features a cast of characters who are mostly poor and the filmmakers admirably treat these underclass characters as full-fledged people rather than the kind of poor white trash caricatures of a film like Deliverance. The film does this through contributions by a very talented cast. Tom Hardy plays a seemingly indestructible older brother among the bootleggers and Hardy is very good. His character mumbles through much of the movie and is outwardly stoic but Hardy effectively conveys the character’s emotions with subtle choices and despite the violence that his character is involved in many of his scenes are funny and even touching. Jessica Chastain plays the bartender at the bootlegger’s operation and although she is not given much to do, the actress finds ways to add a lot to her role that hints at the past trauma that the character has endured. Guy Pierce plays the lead villain and Pierce is frightening in a very restrained way. His perfectly coiffed hair and fashionable 1920s clothes contrast with the messy and earthy look of the rest of the cast and when he lashes out it is all the more upsetting because it evokes classist sympathies on the part of the audience. 

What Doesn’t: Lawless feels as though it is a cut down version of a much longer film as some of the subplots involving the supporting characters are incomplete. One of the bootleggers, played by Shia LaBeouf, establishes a business relationship with a gangster played by Gary Oldman but this relationship never comes to a meaningful fruition and the presence of Oldman, who is a high profile actor, makes the partial treatment of this subplot more noticeable. Also incomplete is the relationship between Shia LaBeouf’s character and a preacher’s daughter, played by Mia Wasikowska. Although Wasikowska is better in this film than she has been in many of her other roles the plotting of their courtship leaves out a lot of details, especially since it is clear that her father does not approve of LaBeouf’s character. Lawless opens with a prologue and closes with a coda and these sequences are disconnected from the rest of the film. They play on broader themes of life and death but those issues aren’t developed enough throughout the picture and the ending in particular feels tagged on. Also, viewers should be aware that Lawless is not the action shoot-‘em-up that the distributor has marketed it to be. That should not reflect poorly on the film but viewers should realize that Lawless is closer to Unforgiven than it is to Tombstone.

Bottom Line: Lawless may not be director John Hillcoat’s best film but it is consistent with his work so far, which is to say that it is impressively made and successfully reconfigures the western for a contemporary audience.  

Episode: #404 (September 9, 2012)