One of the most visceral and exuberant films of the last decade is the 2005 John Hillcoat-directed, Nick Cave-written über-bloody Aussie western The Proposition. The film is certainly not for the more sensitive souls among us, but for those of us who like our action knee-jerk and sanguine, and in the vein of the Old Spaghetti West, then The Proposition is one of the better and more recent go-to-movies out there. So with a giddy anticipation for the latest John Hillcoat-directed, Nick Cave-written film, this time based around bootleggers, gangsters and crooked cops in the rurals of prohibition-era Virginia, I walked into the screening of Lawless with rather higher-than-average hopes. Boy was I ever disappointed.
With thoughts of both The Proposition and Hillcoat's intense and demanding 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthey's The Road (screenplay this time around by playwright Joe Panhall) in mind, one must assume that Lawless had some pretty insurmountable steps to climb, and therefore perhaps is being put upon a bit too harshly, but one must also admit that this film, adapted from Matt Bondurant's historical novel-cum-family memoir "The Wettest County in the World," never manages to gather up any of the get-up-and-go attitude that it so desperately needs to succeed in what it is trying to do and become. Granted, there are a few scenes that come close to matching either the intensity of The Proposition or the dread of The Road - most of which involve either Tom Hardy as man-with-no-name-ish family patriarch Forrest Bondurant or Guy Pearce as foppish yet brutal Special Deputy Charlie Rakes - but none of these ever cohere enough to allow the film to work on such a level. This is a film that, with its pedigree and with the inherent filmic quality of the story, should be a whole hell of a lot better than it ends up being.
The story follows three bootlegging brothers in Franklin County, Virginia - a place once so known for its moonshine and abundance of mountain-top distilleries that Sherwood Anderson dubbed it the wettest county in the world (hence the title of the book written by the grandson/grand nephew of the aforementioned three bootlegging brothers) - and their run-in with a sadistic U.S. Agent and a big time Chicago mobster named Floyd Banner. In theory this should be the kind of thing that is just rife for Hillcoat's and Cave's sensually masochistic treatment. In reality, it just never comes through. One could say (and many have) that it is the casting of Shia LaBeouf that put a damper on a lot of the so-called evening, but really, the kid does a relatively competent job in his role as the youngest Bondurant brother. The Transformers star isn't really a bad actor so much as a bad picker of films. But still, the film never manages to pick up on any of its actors. Oldman, as the gangster Banner and Jessica Chastain as Hardy's potential love interest, never get anything much to do (talent wasted indeed), Mia Wasikoska, as LaBeouf's wouldbe girl, is allowed better than they, and Hardy and Pearce are both powerful but are both left wanting for more - just as we the audience are. Pretty sad if you ask me.