Story: In the early 1930s, in Franklin County, Virginia, the three brothers Bondurant (Shia LeBoeuf, Tom Hardy & Jason Clarke) make their living by producing and selling moonshine liquor. The arrival of a new, corrupt law enforcer from Chicago (Guy Pearce) and the entrance of two beautiful women (Jessica Chastain & Mia Wasikowska) endanger the brothers’ operations and their family bond.
Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy) believes that he and his brothers are immortal. World War I did not kill his older brother Howard (although it did turn him into a drunk) and he himself survived the Spanish Flu. Time and time again in John Hillcoat’s movie, Forrest’s strange superstition will give him reason enough to rush into deadly danger once more. However, the one who really gets his family into trouble is youngest brother Jack (Shia Leboeuf). His ambition, love (for Mia Wasikowska’s daughter of a preacher man) and recklesness may be the undoing of the Bondurant clan.
And this is so typical for this film. Shia LeBoeuf is not an unsympathetic actor. I quite liked him in Disturbia. He wasn’t even the worst thing in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. The Transformers franchise may have not assured me in any way regarding LeBoeuf, but I kept faith in his promise. However, if there is anything that Lawless makes clear, it is that LeBoeuf cannot (yet) hold his own against such powerhouses as Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce and (in a small cameo role) Gary Oldman.
Hardy and Pearce blow LeBoeuf from the screen. And they don’t even have to try. If anything, Hardy seems restrained by the two-dimensional character of Forrest Bondurant. And by the highly episodic character of Lawless. Especially in the first and second act, we seem to witness more or less randomly chosen episodes from the Bondurants’ struggle with the law and each other. A clear, red line is absent.
John Hillcoat previously made The Road, which was the – also very episodic – story of a son and a father after an apocalyptic event. Perhaps Hillcoat has a preference for making episodic films. But Lawless feels as if it should have been a straightforward ambitious-younger-brother-gets-older-brothers-into-trouble kinda story. Instead, the film spends too much time on small town politics and romantic diversions.
And although on the one hand I feel that Wasikowska and Chastain have no function in this film, on the other hand they are the best things in it. Which begs the question: why bring in these enormously talented actresses if you’re not going to use them properly? If you have Chastain and Wasikowska, then give them good lines, a proper role in the story and more screen time. The same is true for the delightful bluegrass soundtrack by screenwriter Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. I wanted to hear more from it in the film than I got.
Final verdict: Lawless is interesting, intruiging even, but unevenly paced, too episodic and hampered by the fact that its leading actor is easily outshone by his colleagues. I’m going to buy the soundtrack album, but the DVD/Bluray will not sorely be missed.