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Lawless less than impressive

Kevin Noonan | Sunday, September 2, 2012

 

Sometimes the great can be the enemy of the good. It’s one of the biggest and frustrating pitfalls of many good movies, including, unfortunately, Shia LaBeouf and Tom Hardy’s prohibition-era gangster drama, “Lawless.”

The film tells the story of the three Bondurant brothers in the 1920s in backwoods Virginia. The two older brothers, Forrest, played by Tom Hardy (aka Bane from “The Dark Knight Rises”), and Howard (Jason Clarke), run a successful, if small-time, moonshine operation, while Jack, the youngest brother (Shia LaBeouf), is on the outside looking in.

Forrest and Howard live in an air of invincibility, a feeling that inspires fear and deep-founded respect among the native Virginians. A recurring theme throughout the film is the larger than life status of Forrest, who survives and avenges multiple murder attempts that easily would have killed a normal man. 

Jack is clearly the runt of the litter and is labeled as such by another character in the film.  He lacks the physical prowess, fear-inspiring presence and violent nature that make his older brothers infamous. But where he differs from his brothers, he has wild ambition.

His ambition takes form at a bad time, as a big-city special agent, played by the always spectacular but seldom seen Guy Pearce, has just arrived in town to break up the moonshiners.

In many ways, “Lawless” is a solid film. It’s at times exciting and intriguing. It features strong performances from Hardy as a seemingly immortal living legend who’s begun to believe his own myth and Pearce as a wormy, corrupt, violent police agent with a sickening sneer. Its scenery and direction are impeccable, and the recreation of the bootlegger lifestyle in the prohibition era is outstanding.

It’s a good movie. But it’s not an epic modern-day western and it wants to be so badly it actually takes away from the movie itself.

The pace is slow and drawn out, leaving action scenes few and far between. The film tries to fit too much into too little, leaving many parts of the film horribly undeveloped and seemingly unnecessary.

Gary Oldman plays a big time gangster with no fear who does business with Jack and gets his own moonshiner career started. But his character, one of the most interesting in the film, gets lost and disappears for the last end of the film for no real reason.

The film wants to be an epic, and therefore has a lot of ground to cover. There’s family drama, the cops-and-gangsters action, small town versus big city, outlaws becoming heroes (which is how the movie was tag lined, but in reality is only about three minutes at the very end of the film), a character study in what it means to be a living legend in Hardy’s role and countless other little lines of thought and plot the movie tries to hone in on. And on top of it all, Jessica Chastain plays Maggie, Forrest’s love interest ¾ a big city girl with a shady past. She is another interesting character and love story between the cold Forrest and broken Maggie, but it just doesn’t fit well with the rest of the film ¾ it feels forced.

On the flip side, more time and effort is put into Jack’s love life, as he pursues a “crazy Christian” girl, Bertha, played by Mia Wasikowska

Even though it’s commendable that they tried, and really it is clear LaBeouf is trying his best, it’s still Shia LaBeouf we’re talking about ¾ the dude’s not winning an Oscar any time soon.

It’s really a shame this film couldn’t be better. It’s so almost great that it’s not even that good. If the run time was three hours instead of two, we might be talking about a modern-day classic. As it stands though, it’s good, but good just isn’t good enough.

 

Contact Kevin Noonan at knoonan2@nd.edu