Typecasting is a very real phenomenon. Without an outsized amount of talent, many performers are stuck playing the same characters over and over again. If nothing else, John Hillcoat’s new bootlegging drama Lawless gives Shia LaBeouf a chance to evolve his career.
The Transformers star plays Jack Bondurant, the youngest and least tough of three brothers who make and sell their own illegal hooch in the Virginia countryside during the Great Depression. Eldest brother Forrest (Tom Hardy) is a local legend after surviving several horrific battles in World War I -- it’s believed that he can’t die. Forrest is the brains as well as the cold-eyed killer of the group, while middle brother Howard (Jason Clarke) plays burly backup.
The trio run into serious problems when Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) decides to use his authority to weasel in on their illegal racket and they refuse to go along with his plan -- a decision that leads to a civil war in their small community as most of the other families willingly side with the creepy Rakes. Meanwhile, Jack romances a deeply religious local girl (Mia Wasikowska) whose father disapproves of anyone trying to date his daughter -- especially a Bondurant -- and the terse Forrest has his eye on a saloon manager (Jessica Chastain).
Hillcoat’s ensemble of actors is uniformly good. Forrest is supposed to be larger than life, and Tom Hardy certainly has the screen presence to embody a character like that -- if we draw comparisons to the Corleone brothers, Forrest is Michael with a healthy dose of Sonny’s willingness to get his hands dirty. Clarke makes Howard into a loveable oaf, smarter and sweeter than he first appears. Guy Pearce takes his conniving, scruple-free baddie to B-movie heaven. The women all make an impression, even in the midst of this very guy-centric story, but it’s LaBeouf who shows us something new. He doesn’t have Hardy’s command of the screen, but for the first time, he’s found a role that lets his boyish looks sell the character’s early immaturity, and then allows him to take on some genuine dramatic gravitas. His character has the biggest arc of the film, and he carries the picture even while Hardy walks away with it.
Just as he did in his adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Hillcoat creates a very specific and unnerving sense of place in Lawless. The backwoods of Virginia may be comfortable for the Bondurants, but there are so many places to hide that we often feel that anyone could ambush them at any moment. At the same time, the lush greens and golden sunlight have a painterly beauty to them.
The nagging problem with the movie turns out to be its lack of ambition. The script by Nick Cave, adapted from a nonfiction book, wants to make these guys out to be some sort of American heroes, standing up for what they believe in and creating their own myth in the process. There’s only one scene -- an excellent conversation between Forrest and his girlfriend -- in which these men have to consider the truth rather than their own legend. If that scene had had a more profound impact on the whole film, Lawless would have been much more complex and thematically rich. Instead, the movie settles for a well-done -- if dramatically uninteresting -- shoot-out of a finale that turns these supposed legends into conventional characters.
The most famous quote from John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance comes from a newspaperman who states that when the legend becomes fact, print the legend. Lawless turns out to be too enamored with the legend to focus enough on the truth.
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