Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Movie Review: Lawless

This movie has quite a bit going in its favour, including a great cast, a very interesting setting and a brilliant screenplay. I seriously had my doubts about ‘Lawless’ and its potential to impress me but after watching it I can happily report that it lives up to its potential, despite being a very different film than the trailer would suggest.

During the prohibition era in Virginia, the three Bondurant brothers run a successful business bootlegging liquor. The three brothers; Jack (Shia LaBeouf), Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) are the only bootleggers to resist the demands of Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pierce) who has been sent from Chicago to deal with the bootleggers and now seeks a cut of the profits. As the intimidation from Rakes causes the other bootleggers to give in, it is up to the Bondurant brothers to stand alone against Rakes and his officers who are ready for the chance to get rid of the brothers for good.

If you stick with it for long enough there’s definitely a great story to be found here, the setting of the prohibition era in Virginia is a great place for the movie and the history surrounding the events of the film lend credence to the story of the characters. The trailer for ‘Lawless’ would have you believe it is almost a wild west shootout movie about gangsters but it’s something different entirely, the pace is slower and the action is minimal, yet through this the film delivers the best version of the story it possibly could have thanks to its focus on the characters rather than set-pieces.

The film’s very talented cast is comprised of Shia LaBeouf as Jack Bondurant the youngest and most naïve of the three brothers, Tom Hardy as Forrest Bondurant the emotionally guarded and tight lipped leader of the brothers and their bootlegging operation, Jason Clarke as Howard the oldest of the three brothers who struggles with alcoholism due to his experiences in the first world war. Mia Wasikowska stars as Bertha Minnix the daughter of the local preacher and love interest for Jack Bondurant, Jessica Chastain as Maggie Beauford a woman with a mysterious past who Forrest hires as the new waitress for their bar. Rounding out the cast are Gary Oldman who appears briefly as Floyd Banner a noted gangster and Guy Pierce who plays the hateful Special Agent Charlie Rakes.

Howard (Jason Clarke) and Forrest (Tom Hardy) Bondurant.

I didn’t really understand why that when a movie like this has such a great backdrop for its story that it didn’t delve into the deeper aspects of the bootlegging trade during prohibition, instead it focuses primarily on the characters and simply uses 1931 as a setting. Having a character driven movie is by no means a bad thing but when the bootlegging aspect is as integral to the story as it is here, i.e. it is the catalyst for the occurrence of events happening in the film, I feel that it should have been given more prominence in the story, it certainly would have been more interesting to hear further details about the brothers’ underground business.

There are a few points in ‘Lawless’ where it feels like much of the story was edited out to save time to accommodate other parts of the film. Gary Oldman’s appearance in particular is confusing as he is shown in the trailers and his name is even given billing as the third or fourth lead actor of the picture, yet surprisingly he appears in just two brief scenes of the film and then inexplicably disappears. This causes me to questions as to whether his scenes were shortened or cut all together to leave room in the film for the scenes involving Shia LaBeouf’s character’s relationship with Mia Wasikowska’s character (which works very well in the finished film). Oldman’s presence in the film is short yet very entertaining but it is clear that bigger things were planned for his character in the scripting of the film.

Gary Oldman appears only briefly in the film.

For the first 25 or so minutes of the film the pace is so slow that I found myself rapidly losing interest in the story. It wasn’t until a turning point at about half an hour into the movie that the film reclaimed my attention, without spoiling too much I’ll just say that events certainly escalated and showed what exactly the brothers were risking by saying no to the demands of the police. It was here that ‘Lawless’ really took off for me, suddenly Shia LaBeouf’s performance wasn’t whiny but instead it seemed like a genuinely naïve young man coming to terms with the harsh villainy of the world. Tom Hardy’s performance in particular became clear to me, while at first I was really disappointed in his portrayal as I thought he was just mumbling in a southern accent I came to find out that everything he did was true to the nature of the character of Forrest, his un-confrontational approach and repressed emotions complete with his integrity made Forrest into a much deeper character than I had thought possible within the first minutes of the film. Here was a man who is himself an urban legend of his hometown due to his famous strength and endurance; he has lived so long with this fame that he actually finds himself believing the rumours.

Guy Pierce delivers a show stopping performance as Special Agent Charlie Rakes, a lawman filled with evil qualities who has a hate of the world so strong that it seems to manifest itself as a germ phobia. Pierce is truly terrific during every scene he features in and raises the bar dramatically for any other actor to compete with him. The ongoing psychological degradation of Special Agent Rakes is a great thing to watch as Pierce plays it so true that you can see the agent wound tighter and tighter in each ongoing scene until his eventual snap in a climactic scene.

Guy Pierce as the demented Special Agent Charlie Rakes.

Surprisingly I found myself admiring how well the romance sub-plot between Shia LaBeouf and Mia Wasikowska’s characters’ was handled. The initial scene planting the seed for the relationship was just as forced as I might have imagined but over the course of the movie the two create a very natural and progressive attraction to each other through humourous and witty interactions that form a strong bond between them.

Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf) and Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska).

Complimenting the story of the film beautifully are its wonderful cinematography and accompanying score. Some of the shots in ‘Lawless’ are of gorgeous vistas of the countryside, lakes and rural towns, all of which really help to provide the audience with the feeling of the film authentically taking place in 1931 in rural Virginia.

Musician Nick Cave who penned 2005’s fantastic western ‘The Proposition’, which also starred Guy Pierce, writes the script of ‘Lawless’ based off of the book ‘The Wettest County in the World’ by Matt Bondurant, Cave’s script is chock full of intelligent dialogue and wit that consistently impressed me over the course of the movie. What I really admire about Cave’s screenplay however is how natural he writes his characters, every person in the film clearly has their own mind and opinions that the audience can easily gather from how Cave writes their speech and behavior. A great accomplishment he has achieved with his script is that he has made what could so easily have been a very dull story into an enthralling one filled with great exchanges of dialogue and multi-faceted, intriguing characters.

I stated before that I had my reservations about this film but honestly it has been one of the biggest surprise movies of the year for me. Not only does its stellar cast pull out all the stops but an excellent script and the beautiful scope present in its cinematography make ‘Lawless’ one of the best examples of a captivating period piece rooted in truth and certainly a movie worthy of the ticket price.

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