A prohibition-era crime drama written and directed by the team behind excellent Aussie western The Proposition is a mouth-watering prospect. However, Lawless, while being a solid and frequently enjoyable film, often feels a little unbalanced. It looks great and the acting is strong, but it’s held back by a weak plot.
The story follows the Bondurants, three bootlegging brothers from Franklin County, Virginia. There’s quiet older brother Forrest (Tom Hardy), the head of the family business and clearly suppressing a violent rage. There’s middle brother Howard (Jason Clarke), an unfortunately clichéd drunken World War I veteran. The bulk of the story, however, follows the youngest brother Jack (Shia LeBeouf), charting his progression from wannabe to wiseguy.
Antagonist to the Bondurants is corrupt Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce). At first genuinely unnerving, Rakes disappointingly descends into pantomime villain territory towards the end. We’re needlessly reminded throughout that he’s a despicable man, capable of overly evil things.
Gary Oldman pads out an already impressive cast, but his character, Floyd Banner, feels more like an afterthought than an integral part of the story. Admittedly, the emergence of Banner proves to be the catalyst for Jack Bondurant’s ambitions, but it still feels as though Oldman has been shoehorned in just to increase the size of the audience.
Despite its lack of depth, Lawless is a beautifully crafted film. It accurately depicts depression era America, and includes a number of fine performances from the excellent cast, most notably Shia LaBeouf’s. Director John Hillcoat and writer Nick Cave are clearly a formidable movie-making team. Their previous films have a distinct grittiness to them, a grittiness that is also apparent in Lawless.
Although it struggles to reach the crime epic status that it strives for, there’s still plenty here for fans of the genre to indulge in.