Director: John Hillcoat
Lawless is the first John Hillcoat picture one could describe as fun. The director’s two previous pictures — his satisfying adaptation of Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road and his modern masterpiece The Proposition — aren’t exactly crowd-pleasing, both purposefully bleak. The Nick Cave-penned Lawless shares a brutal similarity to those two films, but tonally Hillcoat’s bootlegger-centered family drama is more of a summer blast than an awards picture.
The Bondurant brothers — Jack (Shia LaBeouf), Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) — pretty much run the moonshine business in Franklin County, Virginia during prohibition. The local law seems to leave them alone and everyone in the town thinks highly of the film. Business goes smoothly for the brothers until some actual drama is required, which is where Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) comes in. After Rakes asks Forrest to play “ball,” Forrest points out his family backs down for nobody, which leads to plenty of tommy guns, gun fights and one wonderfully snarling villain.
If all the other performances weren’t so strong, Guy Pearce would be the man who ran away with Lawless. Pearce, although physically the same, pulls off an incredible transformation as Charlie Rakes. He’s revolting in every way imaginable — his hair, clothes, laughs, facial expressions, demeanor and even his sweat makes you cringe. It’s a performance full of the smallest details, which make Rakes a hilarious and terrifying force. Pearce may not have that towering build of Tom Hardy, but there’s not one second in Lawless where you doubt he’s incapable of standing toe-to-toe with him.
Speaking of Hardy, he’s a force of wise and beastly nature as Forrest. In the film, Rakes refers to these “hicks” as having an animalistic side, but Rakes is the real animal, while characters like Forrest are fused with subtle humanity, thanks to Hardy. For such a manly presence and stillness, Hardy finds vulnerability underneath all his grunting, squinting, grumbling, mumbling and bone-crushing punching.
And while every supporting actor has their moment, LaBeouf does a commendable job in the lead role here, easily holding his own against the large performances he’s up against. We’ve seen the young star play in the coming-of-age story before, but never at this caliber. Under the right creative circumstances, the divisive actor shows he can do more than yell, stutter and run through meandering set pieces. His character arc holds real emotional weight, a key ingredient missing in most of LaBeouf’s previous work.
Hillcoat’s film isn’t big in scope, but it’s got a clean, fast and muscular approach to provide all the grand moments necessary. Lawless moves fast with zero fat, never flirting with a dull moment. Only at its end does Cave’s script run into a distracting problem: an expository bookend, telling us how much of a man LaBeouf’s character has become. It’s too tidy of an ending for a film about how messy violence can be. Thankfully, Hillcoat’s film mostly embraces its brutal-but-playful tone, making it this summer’s most satisfying entertainment.
Lawless is now in wide release.
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