Friday, August 31, 2012

Review: Lawless

Prohibition era stories have been done quite a bit by Hollywood.  Gangsters in suits with semi-automatics in hand, bullets and blood lining the streets of New York and Chicago, and square-jawed lawmen chasing down thugs from speak-easies to back alleys.  There has almost been a romantic quality that has underlined these movies, which most often are marked with severe brutality.  Filmmakers and moviegoers alike have held an affinity for these stories and have watched with different rooting interests as the system and its laws crash down on the men peddling their bootleg moonshine.  

Lawless is the latest entry into this sub genre although it takes the conventions of this kind of narrative and flips it on its head.  Like Jessica Chastain’s Maggie Beauford, the story escapes the mean streets of the inner city for the rural rolling hills of Virginia to a town run by the immortal Bondurant brothers.  When the state sends crooked lawmen to town to take control of the bootlegging, a back woods brouhaha begins to brew.

What makes this unique from its brethren is the matter of role reversal.  The system and its laws – mechanisms of the big city and its judicial system – have been handed to the Bondurant brothers by way of their legendary hold over this small town in Virginia.  Thus, the lawbreakers are cast as the lawmakers in this rural community and their reputations give them the authority to wield such power.  So when Guy Pearce’s Rakes comes to town with his special detective’s badge and threatens to disrupt the status quo, it is up to the Bondurants to enforce nature rules. 

Tom Hardy plays Forrest Bondurant – the leader of the pack and the muscle of the group.  While Shia LaBeouf's Jack Bondurant is the narrator of the film and is framed as the lead, Hardy’s character is the most pivotal to the film.  And as usual, he delivers.  Hardy is quickly establishing himself as a tremendous actor who makes good choices and his stunning record remains intact with this film.  He once again brings a strong physical presence to the role while hinting at a deeper sentiment and drives his brute force.

And as for the rest of his cast members, it is a bit of a mixed bag.  Jason Clarke as Howard Bondurant does a nice job playing the bridge between the three brothers.  On the one hand he brings a physical edge to the role while on the other he exudes the foolhardy demeanor one would expect from a middling sibling underling.  Joining him in the plus column is Guy Pearce, whose Charlie Rakes is an exemplary villain, dispensing acts of crooked punishment without an ounce of remorse.  Pearce does a good job of fashioning a creepy persona that is both vile and threatening.  Rounding out the superlatives are Dane DeHaan as Cricket Pate and Mia Wasikowska as Bertha Minnix.  The two do a fine job of portraying good-natured sympathetic characters that find themselves swimming in a pool with sharks.  In a movie with varying shades of gray, their performances establish the light end of the scale between good and bad.

As for Jessica Chastain and Gary Oldman, two of the major talents featured in this film, I was left some what unimpressed.  Chastain is a very good actress who has done very good work (as recognized by numerous awards nominations), but I found her performance to be vanilla and run of the mill.  As the most prominent woman in a male dominated cast, there was an opportunity for her to deliver a standout performance and to steal the show.  Unfortunately, nothing about her stood out and consequently she is relegated to “also-ran” status in this film.  As for Oldman, his presence is window dressing in the same manner as I described Liam Neeson’s in Battleship. As he does nothing whatsoever to legitimately advance the plot, I would guess that any number of actors could have easily filled his shoes and probably have done so with a bit more verve.

And last and most certainly least is Shia LaBeouf.  The man simply is not a third of the actor he thinks he is and the harder he tries to distance himself from the Transformers movies that made him so wealthy, the more his limitations as an actor get exposed.  He’s a one trick pony in the same way Taylor Kitsch is, but was just more fortunate to be attached to a Hasbro property that actually translates to a movie.  LaBeouf has one gear and that is of a petulant beta male with a dour disposition.  Even when cast in this role, his ability to channel this onscreen is questionable at best.  In a movie that features decent story telling and some good acting, he is the lone black mark.

LaBeouf however does not completely derail this movie.  There is enough here at work to keep you entertained.  I won't call this a must see movie, bu I would have no problem recommending it for the holiday weekend.  The character acting is just strong enough to engage viewers and get them to emotionally invest and the action sequences are robust enough to pick up the pace of the film when required.  It won’t get your adrenaline pumping the way Premium Rush did last weekend, but it will provide you an interesting story.

Standout Performance: Tom Hardy is quickly becoming one of most solid performers in Hollywood by combining legitimate character acting with a strong physical presence.  


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