A couple of my students had recommended this movie to me in the last few weeks. I’d seen the trailer and it did seem like it would be something that I would be interested in. For some reason it slipped by and I had almost forgotten about it. This morning we actually headed to the theater in the hopes of catching up on a horror film that had been out even longer than “Lawless” had bee. The listed screening tome turned out to be 9:30 pm instead of am, and so Amanda and I were faced with a choice of what to do. We considered a couple of other films but this was starting the soonest so in we went. It’s probably not the best way to make a decision about what to see but it happens occasionally.
This is a southern fried gangster movie about moonshiners and the corrupt state police that want to take their bite in the bad old days of Prohibition. Once in a while the city gangsters show up as well so there is plenty of rivalry and tension in the story. The art direction, cinematography, and costuming all sell the time period very effectively. As you look at the streets of the small towns, you see the different signs for products of the times, the cars look like they belong to the period and the way the actors are dressed, suggests every photograph I’ve seen of my grandparents back in the 1920s and 30s. The moon-shining business in the film is supposed to be set in Virgina, but all the big city folks are gangsters and lawmen out of Chicago so it did not always make geographic sense. The film is based on a book that is written by the one of the descendants of the three brothers featured in the story, so I suppose there is some truth in it, although the usual dose of Hollywood hyperbole is detectable in the marketing phrase “Based on a True Story”.
The oldest brother in the family of moon-shining bootleggers is played by Tom Hardy. He is is on the brink of being one of the biggest stars in the world. Earlier this year he was the villain “Bane” in “The Dark Knight Rises”, but even better he appeared as the damaged marine in last years fantastic “Warrior”. His acting talent is not utilized in big strokes in this movie. Half of his performance depends on a gravely voiced southern accent which is used to utter half words such as might actually be said by someone of his status in life. He nails the dead eyed look and mumble pretty well. The other half of his performance however seems to come from the cardigan sweater he wears in the whole movie. He looks like a bulky grumpy grandad rather than a bad ass. At least up to the moment when the brass knuckles he has hidden in his pocket end up in the mouth of someone who crosses him. There are only a couple of scenes where his explosive persona comes out and gives the viewer the emotional outcome we are looking for. The climax of the picture renders him less imposing than other characters that the story is really more focused on.
If you read movie blogs of any type, you will almost certainly have encountered the hate that Shia LeBeouf has generated over the last few years. Despite being featured in the three “Transformers” movies, which have made a ton of money as well as appearing in a number of other successful film, he appears to be an irritant to a number of film goers. It may have started with the less than successful story in the last “Indiana Jones” film. There was a lot to criticize there and he was responsible in at least the on screen segments of the story that most fans find cringe worthy. In my view he has simply been a young actor who is trying to grow in his craft, sometimes failing because of weak material of poor casting. He has however been good in several movies and I would count this one among those. As the youngest brother of the hill country clan of distillers, he is a mix of eager puppy and screw up. The character is written for someone just like LeBeouf, wanting to be more than he is, preening when he makes his mark and believable when he makes a mistake. The match between actor and role is a good fit and the film succeeds in large part because of his presence.
There are some very good performances from other actors in the movie as well but none of them draws attention to the acting with one exception which I will discuss in a moment. Jessica Chastain, who was in two wildly different movies last year, one I loved and the other I loathed, is stuck in a thankless role as the eye candy that generates some emotion from the older brother but her character is just underdone. She has the part of the sexy temptress but I thought she was out-shined by the demur and luminous Mia Wasikowska. Her part is even less well developed but she has just the right look and smile to sell the character of a slightly rebellious Mennonite preacher’s daughter. The performance that draws the most attention to itself is Guy Pearce as the corrupt D.A. enforcer Charlie Rakes. He chews a little scenery, but the biggest part of his performance is a legacy again of the costume and make up departments. Like Hardy’s sweater, Pearce’s hair cut and lack of eyebrows do most of the heavy lifting for the role. He is creepy without having to know much about him.
Gary Oldman is in the movie but other than two scenes, one of them a memorable costarring performance with a machine gun, you would not recall he is part of the story. The machine gun does remind me that this is a very violent film. None of it is the cartoon violence of “Dredd”. This movie violence feels threatening and like it is a daily part of the lives of all the characters. Some of it is shown but thankfully the most brutal parts are mostly hinted at. I was glad not to see the castration and rape scenes that tell you just how depraved some of the characters are. You know that the danger was real and that’s about as far as we need to go with it.
The music was authentic sounding with some tunes featuring Emmy Lou Harris and the final song performed by Willie Nelson. Much of the music reminded me of the southern inflected gospel music of “Oh Brother Where Art Thou”. The story arc is pretty straight forward and the main point of the movie is the maturation of the central character of the Shia LeBeouf. That might keep away the haters but if you like a hard boiled gangster picture with some good performances and solid action, I think “Lawless” is worth the effort.