Greensburg Daily News, Greensburg, IN

March 28, 2013

“Lawless” is lifeless, full of missed potential

Rob Cox
Greensburg Daily News

FROM THE DEN — “Lawless” is a peculiar affair.

It boasts a screenplay that’s sprinkled with almost equal amounts of memorable and cheesy dialogue, with uniformly strong performances.

Yet, this film is largely lifeless, lacking cohesion and frequently stretching plausibility.

Based on Matt Bondurant’s 2008 novel “The Wettest County in the World,” the film tells the true, prohibition-era story of the Bondurant brothers, brazen moonshiners from Franklin County, Virginia (Matt Bondurant is descended from the clan).

Tom Hardy (“The Dark Knight Rises”) is eldest brother Forrest, the clan’s undisputed leader. Forrest is something of a hothead, but he’s got the grit and the toughness to back up his fiery nature. He’s generally soft-spoken, though, until riled.

Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce), Special Deputy to the Virginia Commonwealth Attorney, rubs Forrest and brothers Jack (Shia LaBeouf) and Howard (Jason Clarke) the wrong way when he moves into their territory, demanding a cut of moonshining profits, lest they be shut down.

Forrest will cow to no man, and war with Rakes and his cronies ensues.

There’s a compelling story struggling to break out of “Lawless,” but director John Hillcoat fails to find the cohesion and the pacing necessary to set it free.

LaBeouf, who I’m not terribly enamored of, is a good fit as youngest brother Jack, who feels forever in Forrest and Howard’s shadow and continually struggles to live up to the tough-guy Bondurant reputation. Jack simply isn’t made of the same stuff from which his brothers are molded, though, and LeBeouf does an admirable job of conveying Jack’s greater degree of vulnerability and naivety compared to his brothers.

Jack’s story arc, in fact, follows a loss-of-innocence-type motif, and in the end, he finally gets in touch with his inner Bondurant tough-guy.

Hardy is equally compelling as Forrest, but he’s saddled with a character — based in truth or no — that often comes across as cartoonish, and dialogue that occasionally borders on laughable. From the mouth of a less-skilled actor, some of the stuff Forrest says WOULD be laughable.

In his role as narrator, Jack reveals that Forrest has earned a reputation for being immortal. Forrest himself, in fact, seems to believe his own legend. For his part, Jack isn’t sure.

Apparently, Hillcoat believes his audience should believe in Forrest’s immortality too, and we witness Forrest being slashed across the throat, beaten and shot multiple times.

In the film’s final, climactic gun battle, Forrest is riddled with so many bullets I found myself thinking, “Ah, that’s too bad, I kind of liked him, but it’s a good story choice to kill him off.”

In the next scene, however, we find out that Forrest not only survived all the gunshots, but has married his sweetheart and is living out his days as a peace-loving family man who’s sworn off the criminal lifestyle.

Tragically, Forrest is killed during a winter walk across a frozen lake when he falls through the ice.

It’s an odd, almost funny ending, and one that had me scratching my head at Hillcoat’s choices; much of the rest of the film is riddled with similar imbalances.

In its favor, “Lawless” is heavy on believable, period-driven ambiance, and, of course, the aforementioned strength of its performances is undeniable. But it all adds up to a recommendation fit for only the most ardent fans of historical drama and, especially, fans of prohibition-era true stories.

For everyone else, “Lawless” is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.

Rating: Bark

Score: 55/100

Runtime: 116 minutes

Rated R for violence, language, sexuality and nudity.

Rating System Explained: Rabies = 0; Yip = *; Bark = **; Howl = ***; Lone-wolf howl = ****; Leader of the pack = *****

Contact: Rob Cox at 812-663-3111 x7011.