Review: Lawless

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The Pitch: The bad, the ugly and the pretty.

The Review: For two actors who’ve got fairly similar résumés in terms of roles taken, you couldn’t really imagine two more different actors than Shia LaBoeuf and Tom Hardy. Both have mixed more serious roles with blockbuster fair, but LaBoeuf is from the Sam Worthington School Of Modern Acting, where major casting directors inexplicably keep putting him front and centre for major roles, despite his performances being eerily similar from Transformers to Wall Street. Hardy on the other hand is a cinematic chameleon, and comparing his performances in the likes of Warrior and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – and that’s just last year – it’s hard to imagine any role that he wouldn’t take a stab at. LaBoeuf had stardom thrust upon him, but at 26 still has the baby face of a young DiCaprio, another actor who had to earn his years before maturing as an actor, while Hardy at 34 has had a long, hard struggle, and his breakthrough in Star Trek: Nemesis ten years ago was a false start before directors such as Nicolas Winding Refn and Christopher Nolan began to find the best ways to tap his unique talents. So, of course, the next logical step for director John Hillcoat is to cast them as brothers.

They might seem like an uneasy partnership at first, but Hillcoat’s previous features, such as The Proposition and The Road, have done a good job of putting together eclectic casts and getting the best out of them. The Proposition was a Western-cum-road movie in the Outback, and The Road a very literal road movie with a post apocalyptic twist that gave it almost a siege mentality. That mindset is a common theme to the claustrophobic setting of the Western, and is pushed to the fore here, a tale of egos too big for the small town even before the outsiders roll up. The themes might be all Western but there’s a Chicago gangster polish, as if we’re on the set of a Sergio Leone epic, only to discover that The Untouchables is filming next door and they’re sharing props and extras. Throw in an Amish-like church community for good measure, and it’s a volatile melting pot just waiting to go off… the problem being that it never really does.

The fault doesn’t lie with (most of) the actors. There’s quality across the board here, from Guy Pearce’s satisfyingly creepy turn as a law enforcer to Gary Oldman’s all-too-brief turn as a high ranking mobster and even Dane De Haan, last seen in Chronicle, giving a measured performance as LaBoeuf’s willing sidekick. Women’s roles tend to be underwritten in these genres, but Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska both do more with what they’re given than we should have any right to expect. The core of the film rests on LaBoeuf and Hardy; Hardy’s stoicism and quiet mumbling resonate and he makes the acting look effortless, while LaBoeuf feels markedly out of his depth when everyone makes acting look so easy around him, and you can almost see the gears changing when he’s required to emote. However, the role does require him to be mainly the cocksure younger brother, which he does with reasonable success, even if likeable proves too much of a stretch at the same time. The performances that will stick with you when the lights come up are Hardy and Pearce, but both are likely to alienate as many as they are to please given their reliance on mannerisms. Taken as a whole, the ensemble works effectively enough.

The real let-downs come in the form of two previous Hillcoat collaborators, Nick Cave and Benoît Delhomme. Both contributed to The Proposition in the same roles, and while Cave’s music (along with Warren Ellis) has been top-notch on both, here Cave’s script is flat, never giving the actors the memorable lines to get their teeth into that would sear Lawless into your memory. Delhomme’s cinematography is also lacking the character that defined The Proposition, and helps to dissipate any tension that director Hillcoat tries to generate, only the odd scene carrying any sparkle or tautness when Lawless had the potential to carry this through from start to finish. Even the violence feels half-hearted, the occasional moment of brutality feeling oddly out of place with the mild mannerisms of most of the rest of the narrative. Lawless ends up an odd concoction, neither Western nor gangster pic and not able to stand up to the best of either genre, and is likely to be a footnote in the careers of both its leads in years to come, but hopefully if it achieves anything, it’ll be another step on the road to Shia LaBoeuf becoming a good actor, a road that Tom Hardy seems already much further down.

Why see it at the cinema: Hillcoat’s love of landscapes isn’t quite as in evidence here as in his previous works, but the framing works well and the inevitable confrontations should at least pack a bit more of a punch on the big screen.

The Score: 7/10

One thought on “Review: Lawless

    Ro D said:
    September 13, 2012 at 9:46 pm

    Great review Evangelist. Wholly agree that the film looked the goods but was missing something to elevate it to the greats of either the gangster or western genres. The one thing I would say that you may have accidentally missed is Jason Clarke’s role as the eldest Bondurant brother. I thought he was excellent – like you say with the girls, he didn’t have much to work with but he nailed the drunk violent type (kinda like Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday in Tombstone).

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