REVIEW: Lawless

21 05 2012

Cannes Film Festival

Every year, the studios with any self-respect release a film or so between August or October meant to fill a very small hole in the market: respectable films that aren’t quite Oscar contenders but have more brains than your average popcorn flick. Occasionally, one of these will break away and compete in awards season (“Moneyball,” to name one from last year), but more often than not, they just gain respect and claims at the bottom of a few year-end underrated lists (“Contagion,” to take another 2011 example). There’s nothing wrong with this middle except for just like in politics, where it is more popular to go to extremes than be a moderate, such products are hard to bundle and sell if an audience does not know exactly what it will be getting.

Lawless,” John Hillcoat’s drama set in Prohibition-era Virginia countryside, fills such a groove. It does not quite have the overall package to compete for Oscar gold, but it’s hardly a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. It has flaws, particularly in the insipid first act weighted down by exposition; however, when the film kicks into high gear, it provides a riveting ride.

While I haven’t been a big fan of Shia LaBeouf since “Even Stevens,” which I can now continue to argue is his most accomplished work to date, “Lawless” gets bolstered by a number of supporting performances that should garner the actors some much overdue recognition. Surprisingly, one of these tour de forces is not given by Jessica Chastain, cinema’s new “it girl.”  She’s fine, don’t get me wrong, but Chastain and Mia Wasikowska seem only relevant to the film for marketing purposes, token females to help reach another quadrant.

No, the superb acting comes from Tom Hardy as the immortal Forrest Bondurant, a braggadocios moonshiner who seems to have spawned the myth about himself. Hardy so perfectly endows his character with a sheen of self-righteousness without ever seeming haughty or unsympathetic. When he knocks out foes with brass knuckles, you can hear an audible “yes!” muttered under everyone’s breath. His part may command less screen time than LaBeouf as his brother Danny, but Hardy feels like the protagonist and the leading man all the way through.

It also helps that the Bondurants have a strong adversary in Charlie Rakes, a well-groomed city cop with a cringe-worthy butt part and no eyebrows played masterfully by Guy Pearce. It’s not often I root so vehemently against a villain, but thanks to Pearce, we see the blackness of his heart and the coldness of his soul lain bare across the screen.  As he attempts to foil the bootlegging of the Bondurants in what was then known as “the wettest county in the world,” screenwriter Nick Cave and Pearce just keep hitting every note perfectly on pitch with Rakes.  It may be too soon to scream Academy Award, but at the very least, this should remind people that Guy Pearce should be moving out of Gary Oldman-esque character actor purgatory.

Aside from Hardy and Pearce, “Lawless” is fun and entertaining but little more. Hillcoat does little innovative with the camera or creative with the genre, and Cave’s script is conventional but rarely tedious. Nonetheless, there’s nothing wrong that running what you know works from the playbook, but it does put an upper limit on a film’s capability to have an enduring place in any cinematic canon.  B



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