The best way to describe John Hillcoat’s Lawless is as a story waiting to happen. It’s a curious experience, and a strange way to characterize it, but after giving the film a viewing, it becomes clear as to what this means. It has all the elements to tell an interesting tale about bootleggers struggling with the law, but for some odd reason, the film is structured in such a way that it merely prowls around the idea for almost the entire duration of its runtime.
As to why it was written in this way is unknown, but what story we do get out of it revolves around the Bondurant Brothers: Jack (Shia LaBeouf), Howard (Jason Clarke), and Forrest (Tom Hardy), three men famous for being bootleggers in 1930s Virginia. At the start of the film, Jack is merely the driver for their various deliveries, which includes payoffs to the local law enforcement. However, it’s not long before he wants a bigger role in the whole process, which leads him to start making his own moonshine with a buddy of his.
At around the same time, a special agent, Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), has been brought in to see about the bootlegging problem. However, it immediately becomes clear that he’s merely there to intimidate the brothers into giving him and his supporters a piece of the action. This doesn’t sit too well with any of them, which leads to a dangerous situation given the determination of both parties to achieve their goals.
As you can see here, we have the setup to a compelling story. We have the protagonists (they may not be the “good guys” in the usual sense, but they are the people that we are supposed to be rooting for) and the antagonists (crooked law enforcement), leading you to think that this will be an intriguing fight for dominance. By all means, this should have been a great tale, so what went wrong?
Well, for starters, as I mentioned at the top of the review, it’s written in such a way that it ignores the central story for most of the film. Instead, it wastes long chunks of its runtime on subplots such as one involving Jack and his relationship with a young woman, Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), whose father, a preacher, disapproves of Jack seeing her. There’s also Jack’s attempts to expand his role in the bootlegging business, which don’t help add any momentum to the film either.
The best parts end up being those that involve special agent Rakes, played in a slightly over the top manner by Guy Pearce. I’ve mentioned before in my review of Seeking Justice how Pearce makes for a pretty good villain, but here he steals every scene he’s in. He even looks like he’s really enjoying the role.
I wish I could say the same for Tom Hardy, whom many will remember as having recently played Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. Unfortunately, he grunts all of his dialogue throughout the entire film, making much of it incomprehensible. It was an odd choice that leads to him being one of the more forgettable characters in the film.
You also have the bizarre inclusion of Gary Oldman as a big-time gangster by the name of Floyd Banner. His screentime in the film amounts to maybe 3-4 minutes at best, causing his character not to have much of an impact. Oldman is a fantastic actor, but it was another odd choice for the film to have him play such a minor and unimportant role. Too bad he was a bit too old to play one of the brothers instead.
Turning back to the story, or lack thereof, it does come back to it every now and again, but only for little spurts. This leaves you wanting more before it strays off to yet another pointless subplot, making it rather frustrating to sit through. It does eventually arrive at a big confrontation at the end, but by this point, they’ve paid so little attention to the story that it’s really hard to care.
Lawless comes from director John Hillcoat, whom you may remember from having directed the dreadful The Road in 2009. That was a film filled with multiple nonsensical turns in the plot, which is a rather interesting comparison to his latest, which has you waiting for any kind of turns in the plot at all. It may have seemed like good material to make a film out of, and as I said, it should have been, but Hillcoat and his screenwriter (Nick Cave, basing his screenplay on the novel The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant) were just unable to bring it out, leading to a film that leaves you waiting and ultimately disappoints.
As far as the technical aspects of the film go, you get a 2.35:1, 1080p widescreen transfer that has a sharp, clear picture, which is rather important for a period film that has a lot of attention to detail. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is a little on the soft side, so this is another Blu-Ray that you have to turn up a bit to get the full experience, or if you simply want to try and make out what Tom Hardy is saying.
Special features on the disc include:
- Feature Commentary with Director John Hillcoat and Author Matt Bondurant
- Deleted Scenes
- The True Story of the Wettest County in the World
- Franklin County, VA: Then and Now
- The Story of The Bondurant Family
- “Midnight Run” Willie Nelson Music Video
What you get with the three featurettes is basically a history lesson about the characters, which will be interesting to history buffs, but for those looking for something about the making of the movie, you’re going to be rather disappointed. The closest they get to that area is when they’re talking about the strengths of the actors portraying each character. The deleted scenes run about eight minutes and show you that the filmmakers knew that some of the material was causing the film to drag. It’s just a shame that they didn’t realize that there was a lot more than eight minutes causing that to happen.
As for the commentary, a sampling reveals that Hillcoat and Bondurant put the film in a historical perspective, but for the most part, this is one of those commentaries where the participants describe what’s happening on screen. In short, these extras are meant for the people who are really interested in the history behind the film, which they do a decent job of discussing, but as I said, if you’re looking for anything about the movie itself, you’re not going to find very much.
Overall, the film looks great in its Blu-Ray presentation and the special features are ok if you’re up for a history lesson, but even then, they’re not particularly interesting. What is missing are some “making of” featurettes that help explain why the film is put together in this strange fashion and more in-depth interviews that tell how this idea was brought to film from the book. What drags this release down most though is the film itself. Lawless had a lot of potential, but unfortunately the filmmakers just didn’t take advantage of it, making this a Blu-Ray you can skip.
This review is based on a copy of the Blu-Ray that we received for reviewing purposes.