“Lawless” a grand tease of what could have been the year’s best

“Lawless” is a vital career-test of most involved, representing a vital financial or creative crossroads. Director John Hillcoat needs an artistic/commercial rebound after 2009’s long-delayed “The Road”. Tom Hardy needs to prove his post-“Dark Knight” viability as a leading man. Perhaps most importantly tested is Shia LaBeouf, who after years of talking about wanting “game-changing” projects — all the while collecting paychecks for the “Transformers” trilogy — seems to have burned most of his bridges in Hollywood. “Lawless” indeed represents a new, matured Shia, who does turn in very impressive work.

He’s Jack Bondurant, one of three Prohibition-era Virginian brothers running what many called the “wettest county in the world” — namely, the one most immersed in the production of bootlegged liquor. He’s something of a business outsider compared to his elder brothers, Forrest and Howard, and so begins to want a bigger piece of the pie.

This happens concurrent with the arrival of Special Agent Charlie Rakes. He’s a flashy, quick-tempered individual whose drive to crush bootleggers, and the Bondurants along with them, kicks the film’s dramatic momentum off. In theory, at least.

In truth, the biggest problem that “Lawless” has is its general inability to sustain any major form of dramatic momentum, at least for a long period of time. One would think that with its fairly simplistic conflict — brothers vs. lawmen — “Lawless” would have no problem creating tension. But screenwriter Nick Cave prefers taking many inexplicable narrative detours — take for instance, the sudden 5-minute introduction of prominent gangster Lloyd Banner as a Bondurant ally, a relationship that is never explained or given a pay-off. Why go to the lengths of writing his character and casting a phenomenal actor (Gary Oldman) in his shoes if there’s no significance at play?

Ditto for Mia Wasikowska, playing a preacher’s daughter who receives the romantic attention of Jack, AND for Jessica Chastain, playing a similar figure in the life of Forrest. These are all talented, worthy actors whose parts never add up to much. This is frustrating not because we expect more from the actors’ reputations, but because “Lawless” itself always hints at grandiose revelations and character moments that just never come.

“Lawless” is deeply unsatisfying, yes, but not because the plot is unresolved — quite the contrary, an epilogue actually leaves everything annoyingly over-explained. But rather, the many hints and sneak-peeks given by “Lawless” of something great to come, are what undo it. They tease. But they never deliver.

“Lawless” is home to a lot of small pleasures, don’t get me wrong. I could fawn over the hypnotic cinematography and relaxed aesthetic composition for days, and the music by screenwriter Nick Cave is a wonderful complement to the on-screen proceedings.

Greatly impressive are the duo of LaBeouf and Hardy. Over the course of “Lawless”, LaBeouf’s character transforms from a young, impressionable idealist into to a hardened, decisive man. LaBeouf’s work captures that shift with subtlety and grace, mirrored all the more by the fact that “Lawless” is a more mature work than the fare he’s chosen before.This, coupled with his superb work only a month ago in “The Dark Knight Rises”, Hardy’s proven to be one 0f the most intense cinematic presences out there. Where in “Rises”, Hardy’s creepy, mask-assisted voice was what haunted you, in “Lawless” it’s the exact opposite. It’s his silence, his calculation.

Guy Pearce’s work may be what leaves most people buzzing about “Lawless”. With hammy lines like ‘Never drink from a greasy cup’ and an inspired choice to shave off his eyebrows, Pearce creates a thoroughly loathsome, fearful figure. A worthy villain, one of depth and complexity. But it is precisely that depth and complexity in such a small dose, that leads us to wonder why it is not in a larger one, why it doesn’t apply to the film’s events, the significance of those events, and the general question: why exactly is this story being told? And this is where “Lawless” fails. C+


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