DVD Release Date: November 27, 2012
Theatrical Release Date: August 29, 2012
Rating: R for strong bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 115 min.
Director: John Hillcoat
Cast: Shia LeBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Guy Pearce, Mia Wasikowska, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Dane DeHaan

We live in the age of the blockbuster. Studios shell out massive amounts of money on effects-driven extravaganzas that promise fantastic finales. Good combat evils, with the future of the world—and the universe—on the line.

Yet after the latest superhero movie has ended, after the sequel to the sequel has set up yet another chapter, after another burned-out franchise has gone back to its beginning for a series reboot, it can all feel so passé. If so much is at stake in these stories, why have they become so routine? With mankind’s very existence hanging in the balance in blockbuster after blockbuster, why do the films often feel so impersonal?

Maybe we need a return to more elemental storytelling on a smaller stage. Mano a mano, where the stakes are limited to local territory, where the battle royale that provides the story’s climax is as simple as a showdown, a shootout and settling of old scores.

Lawless is that movie. A tale of moonshine runners in rural Virginia in the early 20th century, the film has the feel of a revisionist Western. The heroes are antiheroes; they break the law by bootlegging. But their nemeses—law enforcement figures and out-of-town heavies looking for a piece of the action—so abuse their authority that we root against them and, by extension, for the moonshine gang.

Lawless centers around the story of the Bondurant brothers: Jack (Shia LeBeouf, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen), Charlie (Jason Clarke) and Forrest (Tom Hardy, Inception). Forrest runs the liquor operation, and he doesn’t take kindly to an offer from locals to cut them in on the action. Nor does he yield when similarly challenged by Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce, The King's Speech), who makes it clear that Forrest will have to share his profits. If not, his family will be put at serious risk.

Forrest isn’t the type to back down, even when they come after his girlfriend (Jessica Chastain, The Help). He beefs up his ranks, bringing Jack into the operation despite the brother’s naiveté.

If Lawless has a problem, it’s the central character of Jack. The performance by LeBeouf, a not unappealing but rather bland actor, never stands a chance against Hardy’s forceful, memorably physical portrayal of Forrest. Hardy’s grunts convey more about his own character than any scripted words could. Pearce’s Rakes is spectacularly sleazy and menacing, a towering performance from a fine actor. Jack is merely caught in the middle between these two egos, one a strong, silent type, the other a barely-in-control maniac given to fits of rage. Watching Hardy and Pearce dominate Lawless is a treat, even as LeBeouf’s ostensible lead character comes across as an afterthought.

If the story, based on a book by Matt Bondurant and adapted for the screen by Nick Cave, packs in too many characters and feels a bit unbalanced at times, it pays off handsomely with a classic shootout that thrills in its simplicity. When the tension runs this high and the story’s climax feels this inevitable, it’s not the film’s drawbacks but its strengths that carry the day.

Lawless feels like the kind of movie Hollywood no longer makes—character-driven period pieces that aren’t about high society or refined social mores, but which focus instead on the abuse of power and the struggle to survive in the face of injustice. The villains and (anti)heroes of Lawless claim their own victims, but it’s we, the audience, who realize what we’ve lost as we watch: down-to-earth stories that don’t feature men who dress in opulent costumes, or finales created on a computer.

It’s been too long since an old-fashioned shootout felt this fresh, this exciting. Why can’t there be more movies like this one?

CAUTIONS

  • Language/Profanity: “Godd-mn”; several uses of foul language, including the “f”-word
  • Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: Moonshine manufacture and sales drive the plot; several scenes of drinking and smoking; Jack goes to church drunk
  • Sex/Nudity: A man tells another man that he’ll “need a crowbar to get inside” of a woman; a woman is said to have been a dancer “with feathers” before she moved to Virginia; a nude woman; breasts and pubic hair shown; kissing; a woman crawls into a man’s bed, kisses him, and they start to have sex
  • Violence/Crime: Dead bodies; a gun is aimed at a pig and fired; fisticuffs, including with brass knuckles, and brawling; a man spits blood; blood and bloodstains shown; a man is tarred and feathered; a broken neck; an explosion; a shootout
  • Marriage/Religion: Jack falls for a preacher’s daughter; a church service includes a capella hymn singing and foot washing; an action is said to “go beyond the point of forgiveness”; a character says, “There’s a lot that can’t be forgiven”; it’s said that “there can be no absolution”

Questions? Comments? Contact the writer at crosswalkchristian@hotmail.com.

Publication date: August 29, 2012