Reviewed by Kevin Finnerty
“I’m the one who’s gonna make your life real difficult from now on if you don’t toe the line, Country boy,” says Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), the new enforcer from Chicago, to Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy), the head of the Bondurant family of Franklin County, Virginia during the Depression-era and Prohibition, in the dramatic crime film Lawless.
The Bondurant brothers run the most successful bootlegging operation in Virginia and are respected and feared in Franklin County after having beat the Spanish flu in their youth, Forrest surviving World War I, and numerous unsuccessful attempts on their lives. To the people of the county, this family – in particular, Forrest – seems immortal. When Rakes arrives, with the backing of Chicago and the local law looking to take a share of their profits, things begin to quickly become tense and very dangerous for the brothers.
The runt of the Bondurant clan, Jack (Shia LaBeouf), is aspiring to grow the family business and prove himself to Forrest who he both idolizes and resents. Being both terrified and thrilled by a quick but deadly shoot-out involving a Tommy gun and the infamous mobster boss Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), Jack sets out to do business with Banner and increase the family’s bootlegging profits to new heights. He also has his heart set on courting and winning the preacher’s daughter, Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), whose father despises the Bondurant family and everything they stand for.
Meanwhile, violence and tension grow and erupt in the county, with Rakes bearing down hard on both Forrest and Jack, determined to convince them to share their profits or perish in a hail of gunfire.
Overly ambitious and slowly paced, Lawless struggles to tell multiple stories and fails in making any of them engaging or interesting. The film is constantly at war with itself, jumping back and forth between two major storylines. The first about bootlegging brothers and their war with the new corrupt deputy from Chicago, and the second focusing on the new women in their lives and the possibility of love. It’s also unoriginal in its style and story. The audience has seen this type of film before many, many times, and done much better.
Another problem with the movie is the complete waste of one of the best actors in the cast. Gary Oldman is only given two scenes as mob boss Banner and is on screen for a total of less than 10 minutes. This is perhaps the biggest crime by the filmmaker. The audience will be expecting, as did this film critic, to see more of this character and what role he’ll play in the escalating upcoming war between the Bondurant brothers and Deputy Rakes. Be warned…he doesn’t have a role to play. It’s really more of a cameo than anything else and will leave the audience dissatisfied.
There are two strong performances in the film that need to be singled out for praise. Tom Hardy’s portrayal of the eldest brother Forrest is terrific, his stone-faced expression and soft spoken lines capture perfectly the menace and strength which make Forrest Bondurant a more than formidable presence in the county. And Guy Pearce delivers his best performance since L.A. Confidential as the violent and corrupt special deputy who laughs at the fortitude of the Bondurant clan and is confident he will triumphant in the end and stand gloating over their bullet-riddled bodies. He makes for a memorable villain.
Slow and unimpressive, Lawless comes up short in being a film about brothers, Prohibition, violence and family, and is sure to be forgotten in comparison to ALL the other GREAT Depression-era gangster films.
Lawless hits theaters on August 29, 2012 and is rated R for strong bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity.