2012 has been quite a year for eccentric performances. Matthew McConaughey in ‘Magic Mike,’ Michael Shannon in ‘Premium Rush,’ Rep. Todd Akin on the campaign trail. . .but the winner of this year’s Walken/Cage prize surely has to go to the relative newcomer to the A-list Tom Hardy. Between his masked anarchist Bane in ‘The Dark Knight Rises‘ and his authority-resistant bag of muscles, Forrest Bondurant, in John Hilcoat’s ‘Lawless,’ Hardy has delivered two pugnacious, guttural turns that ought to keep the impressions coming for years.
Hardy isn’t ‘Lawless’s’ main character, Shia LaBeouf is, but the invincible big brother has been looming large for LaBeouf’s whole life. As has the other older brother (Jason Clarke), similarly prone to violence but more likely to rage with a jug of moonshine in an attempt to dissolve memories from the First World War.
Moonshine is the Bondurant family business, and while LaBeouf is the runt he’s also the one that turns them from a local operation in the “wettest county in the world” (Franklin County, Virginia) to a major player amidst the top gangsters of Chicago.
I don’t have to tell you that bootlegging is nasty business, and it’s fairly quick that the local law, heretofore happy to clear the road for the Bondurants in exchange for a Bell Jar of clear fire water, is now getting pushed around by a creepy, sadistic special investigator from Chicago played by Guy Pearce.
Pearce is delightful and terrifying and will wow anyone who hasn’t seen Garrett Dillahunt’s portrayal of Francis Wolcott on ‘Deadwood.’ It may be unfair, but when Pearce was riding the line between murderous and dandy, it felt like listening to John Mellencamp instead of Bruce Springsteen. Good, but no comparison.
There’s not much to the story of ‘Lawless’ that isn’t predictable. The city slicker wants the hillbillies to kiss the ring and pay a tithe, but the brothers won’t think of it. There’s escalating violence, much of it outrageous, and then a final showdown. Still, there are enough side dishes to make the meal worthwhile.
I’d say that Hardy chewed up the scenery in ‘Lawless,’ but to do that he’d have to open his mouth. He mainly just “urps,” be it when staring down a rival bootlegger or first gazing upon a gorgeous Chicago dancer looking make a fresh start in his garage/saloon/lawbreakers HQ. This is one of the few screen characters to survive a “Sicilian necktie” and not have it affect his speech patterns.
Shia LaBeouf is a good fit for the Scrappy Doo-esque younger brother who wants to play with the big boys. Once the money starts rolling in, he buys a flashy suit and new car in the hopes of catching the eye of the mandolin-playing daughter of the local Holy Roller preacher. While his quarry (Mia Wasikowska) isn’t given too much to do or say that’s unique, her natural screen presence is enough to make every one of these scenes glow. Her mild features and slim frame evoke the prettied-up side of a Walker Evans photograph and the glimpse’s into her father’s ultra-orthodox sect are fascinating.
Indeed, all of ‘Lawless’ seems to be suffering from not-quite-showing-enough. I was never able to orient myself with the inner workings of the bootlegging world nor, frankly, did I ever grow to like any of the main characters. Yes, I got that these were “hard men,” but unlike, say, ‘Scarface’ (either version) I didn’t get into their heads. By the final battle, I had no real dog in the fight.
This lack of empathy is a genuine issue, but it does not leech the entire film of entertainment value. Moreover, there’s a post-battle coda that is absolutely gorgeous, reminiscent of a film like the Coens’ ‘True Grit’ or ‘The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford.’ Had the rest of the movie had this ethereal quality, I’d be much more forgiving of its other faults. As it stands, I’ll recommend ‘Lawless’ for its gripping violence and batty performances, but not for much else.‘Lawless’ opens in theaters on August 29th.
Jordan Hoffman was the movies editor at Hearst Digital’s UGO for four years and currently contributes to SlashFilm, MTV’s NextMovie and StarTrek.com. He’s made two marginally successful independent movies, is a member of the New York Film Critics Online and was named IFC’s Ultimate Film Fanatic of the NorthEast in 2004. Follow him on Twitter at @JHoffman6.