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.
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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.