Sometimes a film will try and be something it's not, or load it's plate too full of story lines and subplots and flair to digest. Lawless does all of this in one way or another, to varying degrees of frustration. It is a film full of "but"s; the story is intriguing but the execution is unfocused. The acting is solid, but there is no real connection between these people. The look and the score of the film is rather nice, but the musical choices are clumsy. And then there is the violence, which does not bother me when done right, but in Lawless some of it seems repetitive too early on. Of course I am passing over some of the more positive aspects of the film, but (there's that word again), these little details crept up much too often to simply ignore.
Based on a true story from Matt Bondurant's novel The Wettest County in The World (which was once the working title of the film), the story follows Bandurant's early ancestors and their bootlegging operation in the Appalachian mountains during Prohibition. There are three brothers with three varying impacts on the story. Tom Hardy plays Forrest, the quiet Alpha male, the silverback gorilla seated in the corner running the show. Howard (Jason Clarke) is quiet and is less a factor than Forrest and their younger brother, Jack, played with great energy by Shia LeBeouf. Jack is the youngest of the brothers and does not have the comfort with violence and gunplay the way his brothers do. He so desperately wants to be part of the gang, and spends the entirety of the film proving himself.
The Bondurant brothers' peaceful bootlegging business is interrupted one day by a number of outside influences. A beautiful redhead, Maggie (Jessica Chastain) appears asking for work. She clearly is looking for a place to hide, though it is never really explored and Chastain's acting is essentially wasted. The second intruder is much more menacing, as Special Deputy Charlie Rakes appears from Chicago thinking he can force the brothers into paying him off. Rakes is a psychopath, played by Guy Pearce as a flamboyant, perfume-wearing, possible albino (though he dies his hair as black as night) monster. It is a great bit of scenery chewing from Pearce who, along with LeBeouf, is having fun. Everyone else is occupied with looking stoic and wistful.
[SPOILER IN THIS PARAGRAPH] And Gary Oldman appears early on as the famous gangster Floyd Banner. He is on screen long enough to shoot up a car in fantastic fashion, threaten Jack, and he disappears from the film. I spent the rest of the picture waiting on his re-emergence, especially once his ties are uncovered. Alas, he is forgotten, as if his part was edited out of the final act.
The story of Lawless carries on as expected, with threats and fights and reckonings. But the early violence is just a series of brutal beatings. Characters get pounded into the dirt repeatedly too often, too early. It is redundant and violent simply for the sake of being so. And once the dust settles, the human connections between Hardy, LeBeouf, and Clarke are nonexistent. I felt nothing substantial for the plight of these actors, no matter how much they tried to force the musical numbers into the dramatic moments.
Much of Lawless is heightened when it should be toned down. Think of director John Hillcoat's first feature, The Proposition, a masterpiece of violent storytelling which never felt forced or uneven. It was perfect, and while it is not proper to compare films like this, I just wonder if a more stripped down version of Lawless wouldn't work better. Tone down Pearce and his psychotics, get rid of those songs and go with Nick Cave score exclusively. I was impressed with a few things, but (there's that word... again) the overall feeling just isn't there.