John Hillcoat’s Lawless may be the most frustrating, useless film about prohibition ever made. There is a rich, longstanding tradition in American cinema to tell stories set in the 1920s, as the elements that defined the decade – the rise of organized crime, startling legal corruption, increasing economic hardships for the middle and lower classes, etc. – are inherently fascinating and relevant to American viewers. But at this point, the prohibition fiasco has been discussed, analyzed, and dramatized to such an excessive degree that a new work on the subject must be truly special to stand out from the crowd.
Lawless has absolutely nothing new to offer this gangster sub-genre, relying almost entirely on worn-out clichés, character types, and plot points, yet it has the audacity to pretend its content is revelatory. There is a smug, self-satisfied sense to the whole affair, from the opening moments when star Shia LaBeouf treats us to a simplistic, pandering voice-over lecture on what the decade was all about, right up to the final scene when the film thinks it can get away with a moronically sappy, entirely unearned happy ending.
The film tells the true story of the Bondurant brothers, a trio of bootleggers in Franklin County, Virginia. They have a monopoly on the territory until a corrupt law officer decides he wants in on the profits, sparking a brutal turf war that simultaneously expands the brothers’ business while jeopardizing their sound footing.
The first and most pervasive problem is Hillcoat’s overemphasis of mise-en-scene. Lawless is set in the American south, and Hillcoat never wants us to forget, even for a second, just how thoroughly southern these characters and their world are. Every accent is cartoonishly overblown, the dialogue is exclusively comprised of exaggerated, cliché ridden southern phrasing, and the music is a constant assault of square-dancing fiddles and banjos. I am convinced no one involved in the film’s production has ever visited the American south, and have instead overcompensated wildly by studying and replicating how other films depict the location. Nothing about Lawless’ portrayal of the south feels organic, let alone insightful. The overbearing efforts to illustrate the story’s landscape are a constant distraction, an omnipresent reminder that this is all a fake and calculated construction.
And if making sure the audience never forgets the setting is paramount to the film’s construction, why on earth are none of the actors southern? Hillcoat has chosen to favor prestige over authenticity, and though the cast he has assembled is a legitimately impressive group of actors, none of them can believably don a southern accent. Some cast members are British, others are Australian, and a few hail from California, but none are equipped to organically adapt their voices to what the roles demand. It hampers each and every performance, even those that seem like they might, under other circumstances, be interesting.
Tom Hardy, for instance, does great, quietly forceful work as elder brother Forrest, but to mask his thick English accent, his voice must go so deep and gravely that it is often difficult to make out his dialogue. Shia LaBeouf shows a lot of promise in his part, but his hammy approximation of an accent would barely be fit for sketch comedy, let alone a cinematic drama. Guy Pearce fares worst of all, so crippled by his awful Chicago drawl that he is forced to exhibit all sorts of awkward physical mannerisms to match the strained and pitchy voice. I bear none of these performers ill will, but they were clearly cast for the wrong reasons, and the limitations the film’s style imposes on them further removes the experience from whatever level of reality it tries achieving.
Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain fare a little better, if only because they are allowed to don subtle, quiet accents that don’t get in the way of performing. Then again, their parts are one-dimensional at best, and Chastain in particular is so painfully underused that I actually felt a bit insulted on her behalf. Her character has no depth to speak of; she simply shows up out of the blue, starts bartending for the Bondurants, and is made to stand around looking pretty for the majority of the film’s run-time. It’s not just a waste of Chastain’s exceptional talents, but also renders the brutality that befalls her character an empty moment of shock-value violence. Because we know so little about her character, and because the film never meaningfully follows up on what a horrible thing she goes through, the moment feels exploitative, dirty and thoughtless and thoroughly unnecessary in a film that has no interest in exploring feminine issues.
Then again, I’m fairly disturbed by the film’s attitude towards violence from start to finish. This is a spectacularly brutal film, with long sequences of hand-to-hand beatings and shocking amounts of bloodshed. That’s a standard trait of the gangster drama, of course, but quality films that depict such cruelty do so to prove a moral or ethical point. Lawless does the opposite. It celebrates and revels in violence, portraying it as both a weapon of the enemy and a tool for the protagonists to exploit. The Bondurant brothers are able to solve all their major problems through a good shooting or throat punching, and ultimately earn a happy ending after bravely inciting a climactic shootout with law enforcement. I do not see the value in sending such a message.
Based on their actions, the Bondurants are not heroes. They are criminals, murderers whose illicit activities have created an inescapable atmosphere of violence in Franklin County. Corruption in local law enforcement does not give the Bondurants license to do whatever they please, and yet Lawless acts as if the brothers are noble populist warriors because they aren’t the only ones doing bad things. It is a baffling perspective to take. Think about the works of Martin Scorsese, or any other notable director of gangster films; what makes their work interesting is that they position bad men as protagonists, and analyze morality, or lack thereof, in a flawed, indecent world.
To study gangsters is a complex proposition, but Lawless’ approach is simple, asinine, and unbelievably frustrating. Hillcoat is a talented enough director to create real tension every so often, and I found myself enjoying certain moments on a visceral level, but on the whole, Lawless is a failure. It is a difficult and infuriating movie to sit through, one that does not reward the audience’s patience with anything of substance. This is prestige filmmaking at its most tin-eared and self-important, a useless movie that is not worth anyone’s time.