“It is not the violence that sets men apart,” Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy) tells his younger brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf) in John Hillcoat‘s Lawless. “It is the distance he is prepared to go.” The film presents two approaches to the gangster world: the imagined and the practical. Jack dreams of being a gangster without the violence. Forrest doesn’t need the gangster flash, but he is willing to take a pair of brass knuckles and punch out someone’s throat. Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave take a curious look at how two men approach the violence that must be done in order to ensure their survival, and ask themselves what they’re surviving for. Is it for family? Is it for personal pride? Between Jack and Forrest, there’s a serious, meditative story. But beyond them lies distractions of half-developed romances and a cartoonish villain.
During Prohibition, the Bondurant brothers Jack, Forrest, and Howard (Jason Clarke) are able to run moonshine through Franklin County, Virginia. They did so relatively unimpeded with the friendly cops turning a blind eye, and Forrest and Howard providing the muscle. Jack wants to get in the game, but without getting his hands dirty. Forrest wants to run moonshine, because it forces him to survive, which is what he’s best at. But the whole family ends up falling in the cross hairs of deranged deputy marshal Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) who promises swift retribution if the Bondurant boys don’t play ball and pay protection to a corrupt district attorney. Forrest, who sees himself as un-killable, relishes the fight while Jack goes off and tries to play gangster by dealing with Chicago mobster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman).
There are a lot of other moving pieces in Lawless, and it can make the film run a bit clunky despite the strength of the cast’s performances. Jack has a romance with a pastor’s daughter, Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), and Forrest develops a relationship with former showgirl/employee Maggie (Jessica Chastain). While these relationships further illustrate the differences between Jack and Forest (Jack has a sweet, almost naïve romance while Forrest’s relationship is more complicated and almost sorrowful), it plays as a bit of a distraction from the movie’s central exploration of violence and power.
The central dichotomy between the two protagonists is where Lawless comes alive because it has two characters show violence as an ideal and violence as a practical consideration. Jack isn’t prepared to “go the distance”, but he wants to play the part, buy fancy cars and clothes, and show off for Bertha. He just doesn’t want to hurt anyone to do it, which is admirable but also slightly selfish considering he wants to pass himself off as a high-rolling gangster. Forrest, on the other hand, wants to hide his violent nature. He wears the least threatening garment of all time: the cardigan. He may keep a pair of brass knuckles in the pocket of the cardigan, but he’s still wearing the same outerwear as Mr. Rogers. Forrest doesn’t relish violence, but he knows that it must be done in order to survive and protect his family’s honor. LaBeouf gives a fine performance, but Forrest couldn’t work without Hardy’s quiet and taciturn approach to Forrest*. Jack gets to be all surface, but Forrest is a character who keeps us guessing since he has a complex relationship to “the distance he is prepared to go.”
Thrown into this complexity is the one-dimensional, cartoonish, but memorable Charlie Rakes. There’s nothing loud in Lawless; things can get intense or brutal, but there’s no flash to it except from Rakes. He’s the bright light that hurts your eyes. Guy Pearce is a great actor, and he’s had roles in all of Hillcoat’s films, so the director and his star clearly have a shared understanding for this character, but Rakes never seems real. He’s defined more by his black, slicked-back hair, his lack of eyebrows, his accent, and his brutality. But there’s no character there. He’s the BAD GUY in a movie where other characters wrestle with moral choices.
I believe John Hillcoat has a great movie in him (some would argue he already delivered it with The Proposition; I like that movie but it didn’t leave a lasting impression), but he hasn’t quite reached it yet. There are glimmers of greatness in Lawless—the performances, the setting, the cinematography—but the theme hints at a leaner story, and what’s meant to serve as embellishment comes off as a distraction. Lawless is willing to go the distance, but it overshoots its target.
Rating: 7.6 out of 10.
*It’s also way too much fun to do an impersonation of Forrest Bonderant. I’ve seen the film twice, and both times I came out of the theater imitating the character’s non-committal grunts and mutterings.