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LaBeouf’s Lawless fails to ‘shine
Any film starring Shia LaBeouf sporting a questionable southern accent is already at a disadvantage, and it’s a handicap that the well-meaning Lawless fails to compensate for in the ways that matter most. Vacillating somewhere between a classic western and a Tarantino-esque bloodbath, Lawless suffers an identity crisis that leaves it in the proverbial dust, and its central narrative in as many scattered pieces as the body parts of its less fortunate characters.
Set in prohibition-era Virginia, Lawless tells the tale of the apparently legendary Bondurant brothers and their less-than-cordial brushes with some very shoddy representatives of the law. A joint project of filmmaking duo John Hillcoat and Nick Cave, the film is adapted from a historical fiction novel about “the wettest county in the world” and the bootlegging crew that dominated it.
Comfortably operating a moonshine business in full daylight, the family has no problems with the local authorities until a cartoonishly unctuous “special agent” named Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce) arrives from Chicago to wreak havoc. A full-fledged war ensues, pitting the brothers against Rakes and his cronies in bloody shoot-outs and other, more devious encounters.
In the midst of this unfolding conflict, the brothers develop their local business into a lucrative endeavor by opting to sell their goods with an Al Capone-like mob boss (Gary Oldman). Helmed by the previously scatterbrained Jack Bondurant (LaBeouf), this maneuver comes in the wake of a near-lethal injury to the family patriarch, Forrest (Tom Hardy). While his bootlegging ventures bring Jack and his brothers wealth, Jack falters by letting the shiny cars go to his head and thus making some careless missteps that make him vulnerable to special agent Rakes’s merciless schemes. Though this plot turn instills an inevitable thirst for revenge in former lightweight Jack, LaBeouf’s character is hardly the tough and multilayered protagonist that a film of this western genre demands.
Failing in the development of the principal players, the little charisma that Lawless provides is found in its other characters. Tom Hardy hits the mark as the gruff and taciturn Forrest, hiding his London accent in a dramatic transformation almost as impressive as that of Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. Unfortunately, he is consigned to spending most of his stage time sitting on a porch and looking world-weary.
The ever-radiant Jessica Chastain stars as his love interest with a shady past, providing a welcome hiatus from the violence in snatched scenes of subdued romance. Meanwhile, Jack does his own fair share of “courtin’” by pursuing a pious preacher’s daughter (Mia Wasikowska) in a flirtation that reeks of eye-roll-inducing clichés.
It is the sheer number of these clichés that makes Lawless so difficult to like, despite its seemingly entertaining ilk of good old-fashioned action and its generally star-studded cast. Filled with cardboard cut-outs that act as characters, including a one-dimensional villain with a laughable amount of depth, the film struggles to hold the audience’s attention, as it frequently whirls off on tangents and fails to deliver much more complexity to its storyline than the Bondurants’ clear objective to defeat the evil Rakes. It is this blatant lack of gray areas that makes Lawless seem like more of a bizarre parable than a story grounded in historical truth. Messily concocted in the bathtubs of filmmakers who struggled to adapt an attractive tale, it’s not quite the vintage of masterful storytelling a paying customer would hope for.