The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.

Reviewed by Jim Holden.

Director John Hillcoat
Length 116 mins
Certificate 18 / R
Rating *******---
Filmmaking: 3  Personal enjoyment: 4

Photo from the article Trailer.

In many ways, you have seen Lawless before - a violent, ‘Bonnie and Clyde’-esque tale of three outlaw brothers dealing with corrupt cops in prohibition-era Deep South America. What this film has that makes it stand apart, though, are a script and soundtrack by Nick Cave, a beautiful visual style courtesy of John Hillcoat, and a towering performance by Tom Hardy.

The film follows the three Bondurant brothers - gruff father figure Forest (Hardy), wild thuggish Howard (Jason Clarke), and the youngest, softly-spoken Jack (Shia LaBeouf) - as they successfully bootleg moonshine in Virginia until a corrupt lawman wants to strike a deal to get in on their profits. After a slow start, and a fun but off-putting Gary Oldman cameo, things settle down as the brothers balance their illegal business with the arrival of two figures: mysterious city girl Maggie (a beguiling, underused Jessica Chastain) and the dandy police officer Charlie Rakes (the scene-stealing Guy Peace). Both these two outsiders, in completely separate ways, push and pull the trio, testing and questioning them, their operation and their beliefs.

Lawless is an old-fashioned, familiar tale of familial love, the construction of American mythology, and plenty of heroic outlaw behaviour. Unfortunately, the film’s central narrative device - its narration by Jack - is probably also its biggest limitation. Seeing through Jack’s eyes, we have to focus on his arc: from simply the driver of the outfit, to undermining his brothers to make a big score, wooing the local vicar’s daughter, and through to the inevitable fall. This pivotal transition, however, is hampered by the limits of LeBeouf’s performance. Looking fresh-faced, his mixture of naïveté, cockiness and gusto never rings true, and thus seldom provides the necessary sense of purpose and urgency. With this nominally central character faced off against Hardy’s Forrest, a man of few words but plenty of presence, we are likely to know who we would rather be watching. Hardy is wonderful, all gruff barks and cardigans; he simply dominates the film.

Cave and director John Hillcoat (The Road [2009]) previously collaborated on The Proposition (2005), a superior period piece with some similar themes, and by comparison it’s hard not to be slightly disappointed with this latest project. The film is certainly effective, at times gripping, with a wonderful central set piece before the violent climax. Yet with a script by Cave one might expect some more dark humour and lyrical poetry - although the violence, of course, is there by the bucketload.

This review was published on September 14, 2012.

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