Lawless is the story of a gang of bootleggers in prohibition-era Virginia whose booming business in bootleg moonshine is threatened by the arrival of a new deputy in town. I honestly wish there were a little more to the plot than that but sadly this is what we have to work with. Any subplots are so underdeveloped I don’t want to raise your expectations around them.
“Based on a True Story” is normally a signal that a real life event has been taken and distorted beyond recognition in order to turn it into thrilling cinematic fare. It would seem that this step was skipped as Nick Cave wrote the screenplay for Lawless as while the film may well be accurate it turns a story of drink, corruption, gangs, romance, and violence into a painfully dull two-hour slog.
Shia LaBeouf takes the lead as Jack Bondurant, the young enterprising member of the bootlegging gang and our narrator. LaBeouf is at his least irritating in this role but still isn’t particularly convincing as anything but the affable fool. Tom Hardy is good as ever as his brother Forrest Bondurant and provides a few laughs with his performance as a big strong man who gets flustered around women. Sadly Hardy is given little to do beyond grunt and wander round in a large cardigan from H&M. Saying that compared to the way Jessica Chastain is treated Hardy should be grateful for the character development he gets.
As Maggie Beauford, employee to the Bondurants and love interest to Hardy Chastain arrives without explanation, is given a token nugget of back story, and then after getting her kit off is relegated to little more than set dressing. Gary Oldman is treated just as badly as charasmatic mob boss Floyd Banner we barely see and who is quickly dropped from the film once he has served his purpose. Mia Wasikowska suffers similarly, providing Shia with an uninteresting and inconsequential love interest but having no real story or personality of her own.
Guy Pearce is given a bit more of a role as the evil deputy Rakes but is for some reason playing him as a panto villain. I half expected him to arrive in every scene preceded by a crack and a puff of smoke hiding his face behind a cheap cloak as the audience boo and hiss. And the hair! Pearce has had his hair combed into such a severe and unattractive parting he can’t be anything but the bad guy.
Even with a pantomime villain I struggled to get behind the gang as while they were pitched as loveable rogues the gang were quite happy to remove a man’s testicles in the name of revenge when the time came. Everything about this film is on one level; there is no depth or meaning to be found. The brothers are bootleggers who experience some trouble and little else happens. All secondary characters are seen only when they directly affect the brothers which would be fine but for the fact that the brothers are unsympathetic and at worst boring. I would have been happy to sacrifice a few scenes of LaBeouf pratting about or Hardy’s non-relationship with Chastain in favour of getting to spend more time with Gary Oldman.
With an anticlimactic climax and a strangely wholesome epilogue Lawless lumbers off the screen with as little fanfare as it arrived. In the film as a whole there is no one to root for and a plot so basic it is impossible to become fully engrossed in. I found myself completed bored throughout and frustrated at the wasted acting talent on display. Too many interested threads are left unexplored and characters underdeveloped. Lawless is not a film we will be talking about in ten years time.