“Lawless” Movie Review

     The prohibition era film "Lawless" takes an audience along a different path and setting than what is typical of this genre.  Unlike the urban Chicago settings of such films as "The Untouchables" and the original "Scarface", "Lawless" instead tells the story of bootlegging from the source, in the hills of Franklin County, Virginia.  In the center of it all is the Bondurant family, one of several who operate illegal alcohol rackets in the early 1930s and provide the Chicago mob with the very product responsible for the majority of their illegal activities at the time.  Director John Hillcoat's film as a whole spends a great deal of time conveying the violent nature of these business practices and less on all important character development that may have ensured "Lawless" a place among some of the better crime dramas of recent times. 

     Once again removed from the facial obstruction of playing Bane in "The Dark Knight Rises", Tom Hardy provides the most intriguing character in the film as Forrest Bondurant.  Forrest speaks in a mostly unintelligible southern drawl and seems to grunt more than actually talk, but his physical presence along with a well conveyed myth of invincibility make his character the highlight of the film.  As the clear leader of the brothers who run the business and do all the dirty work, Forrest is the type who leads by his actions and he knows the nature of their business means he must lead by fear. 

     For some reason, the youngest brother Jack (played by Shia LaBeouf) is the exact opposite, shown as a young child unable to pull the trigger when asked to shoot that night's dinner.  As Jack grows, he isn't necessarily thrust into the violent aspects of the family business, nor does Forrest believe he has the ability to carry out the important assignments.  This, of course, changes with the arrival of the film's most vile character.  Knowing the mob depends on these operations for their supply, the crooked District Attorney sends in an agent named Charlie Rakes to get a piece of the action.

     Rakes is played in wicked fashion by Guy Pearce and he immediately reminded me of Frank Nitti, the hit man played by Billy Drago in "The Untouchables".  Rakes is a vile individual with a sinister laugh not unlike Vince Vaughn's Lester The Molester in "Clay Pigeons" or his interpretation of Norman Bates in the "Psycho" remake.  Rakes has a wide part down the middle of his slicked back, jet black, greasy hair and just exudes sliminess.  Rakes immediately ensures the other family businesses pay for protection, but the Bondurant's refuse and thus the direction of the story veers toward a bloody conclusion.

     Hillcoat and writer Nick Cave provide a very choppy narrative that is sometimes hard to follow.  The main characters engage in relationships which never really flesh out on screen and this makes some of them seem wooden at times.  The filmmakers spend so much time staging graphically violent scenes that the crucial interactions between characters are often ignored.  There is no better example of this than the paltry two or three scenes given to Chicago mobster Floyd Banner played by Gary Oldman.  Oldman is wasted here and given nothing to justify his presence in a film like this.  A few scenes showing his dealings with the Bondurants and perhaps some meaty dialogue with Tom Hardy would've gone a long way in explaining the relationships the suppliers had with the mob at that time.  Instead, Oldman and Hardy have their interactions limited to passing notes as if they are still in grade school.

     What keeps "Lawless" from becoming more than just a late summer entry is the lack of interesting dialogue.  I would challenge anyone to walk out of this and recall some snippet of memorable conversation between any of the main players like you probably did after viewing "Tombstone" or "Pulp Fiction".The film relies solely on visuals such as the look and feel of characters like Rakes, the splatter of blood, and the setting in which these events take place. Who these characters are takes a back seat entirely and with such crucial elements missing, it's hard to see "Lawless" measure up with the classics.  Imagine "Pulp Fiction" without the snappy dialogue between characters and your left with nothing but bullets and blood.  Creating tension is so important in a film like this and though the conflict is well demonstrated, you get the idea no one cares who lives and who dies. It's as if they made a "crime drama", but forgot the drama.  GRADE: C