Review: Lawless

daniel cohen reviews the prohibition thriller…

Plot: Set in prohibition era Virginia, the Bondurant brothers run a successful bootlegging operation until a corrupt police official (Guy Pearce) comes into town threatening their business. When Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy) suffers serious injuries after an altercation, the youngest of the brothers, Jack (Shia LaBeouf), must step up to keep the profits coming in.

I can sum up this movie pretty easily: the first half was boring, and then it got better. But I guess I’ll give you some analysis. While there are a plethora of tense moments and some good acting, this was a trek to get through. The first half is pretty lifeless, but that’s not this film’s main problem. I hate to be the guy to pile on an actor, but Shia LeBeouf just doesn’t belong here.

There was a time when I thought LeBeouf had potential, but for whatever reason, I get a little dejected whenever I see his name on a poster these days. I don’t think it’s entirely his fault though. The Transformers movies and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull are so utterly atrocious, it’s hard to move past that. But I’m not here to write a Wikipedia article on Shia LaBeouf. Looking beyond what he’s done in the past, and the fact that he just seems like an unlikable actor, he truly is subpar in this movie. His character pissed me off, and it doesn’t help that he’s the protagonist.

LeBeouf plays Jack Bondurant, the weeny younger brother of Forrest and Howard (Jason Clarke). Jack wants to prove he can be tough like his brother Howard and cunning like his brother Forrest. The problem isn’t that he’s pathetic…it’s that his character is completely inconsistent. And I don’t think this was a writing problem, it was a Shia LaBeouf problem. The acting was all over the place. Sometimes he’s scared, sometimes he’s suave, and sometimes he’s tripping all over himself. I couldn’t get a read on who this guy was. But the biggest problem was that this character was just a complete moron. From the first scene to the last, he just continued to do stupid things. This movie wants you to sympathize with him, but I couldn’t get on board with the character because he’s just so infuriatingly dumb, unlikable, and a complete douche. And once again, I hate to pile on the guy like everybody else, but it’s LaBeouf’s performance that brings out that douche factor. It also doesn’t help that he develops a romantic relationship with Mia Wasikowska’s character Bertha Minnix. The two have no chemistry whatsoever, and Bertha is barely a character.

But let’s talk about the good acting. Tom Hardy, as you would imagine, gives the best performance of the film as the quiet level-headed but also tough leader of the Bondurant brothers. Hardy is one of those actors like Ryan Gosling in Drive who can emulate a great performance just by facial expressions and movement. His mumbling did get to me sometimes though. But despite that, he’s awesome, but unfortunately he’s completely underutilized in this film. Whether it’s the director (John Hillcoat) or one of the producers, someone should have realized this was the more intriguing character, and should have focused the movie more on him. For such a pivotal character, he’s really not in it that much.

I also enjoyed Jessica Chastain, who’s also underutilized. She plays Maggie, a romantic foil for Hardy’s character. Unlike LaBeouf and Wasikowska though, these two have fascinating chemistry with a lot of light and dark moments mixed in between them, but it’s never fully explored.

Not only did the script fail to focus on the more intriguing characters, but it was pretty lackluster all around. The dialogue simply doesn’t pop. There’s a scene between Hardy and LaBeouf where Hardy chews LaBeouf out for something he did that should have been either a tense back and forth between the characters, or a good bitch session from Hardy, but it’s completely lifeless.

The film takes a while to get going, but it’s barely interesting enough to hold my attention. As it progresses, I did get more into it. Guy Pearce as the antagonist special agent progressively got more entertaining. He brought a lot of personality to the role, and was definitely someone you loved to hate. The director does a good job of giving us some tense moments as well. There’s a great shootout at the end, even though it’s caused by LaBeouf’s character’s stupidity. There’s also one truly disturbing image halfway through the movie, but the build up to it was done very well.

Despite a strong second half, the resolution was absolutely pathetic. The ending wraps up way too nicely, and to be honest, I wanted different fates for a lot of the characters, especially LaBeouf’s character which was complete bull shit. This could have been something pretty cool if the script was re-written with a focus on Hardy and Chastain, better dialogue, and an edited down first act. It’s worth seeing for some of the acting and a couple high octane moments towards the end…but man, Shia LaBeouf and his character really bring this down.

Rating: 6 out of 10 (‘meh’)

Daniel Cohen is the hard-boiled Film Editor for the Pop Break. Besides reviews, Daniel writes box office predictions, Gotham reviews and Oscar coverage. He can also be found on the Breakcast. If Daniel was sprayed by Scarecrow's fear toxin, it would be watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen on a non-stop loop.