Great performances elevate “Lawless” from it’s fairly standard story

By Wesley Emblidge

To me, there are two kinds of horror movies. There’s the type that just flat out comes out and scares you, like another movie I reviewed recently, “V/H/S.” However the other kind is one I like far more; the kind that gives you an overwhelming feeling of fear the entire film. It’s never a monster jumping out from behind a doorway, but it’s this sense of dread, knowing that something bad is coming and could happen at any moment. We get this in movies like “Jaws,” and in “Lawless” that idea is very present.

The film follows a family of bootleggers, the Bondurants (played by Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf and Jason Clarke), in Virginia during the prohibition era, and the difficulties they encounter when Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a deputy from Chicago, comes to town and wants a cut of their profits. Also in the mix are Jessica Chastain, as an ex-dancer who comes to work for the bootleggers, and Gary Oldman, who is amazing in his five minutes onscreen, is Floyd Banner, a gangster the family gets involved with.

What makes the film work well here isn’t so much the true story that this is based on, it’s more so how director John Hillcoat (“The Proposition,” “The Road”) builds this feeling that anything can happen. A big portion of that is thanks to Guy Pearce, whose character here is just so horrible and deranged. In only in a few moments does he gets a bit campy, but it’s still a lot of fun. What Hillcoat really adds the the film that makes a big impact though is some really brutal, and at times very unexpected violence. Pearce and LaBeouf have one very memorable scene together and it’s just Pearce beating LaBeouf to a pulp. It goes way further than it needs to, and that’s the point. Rakes isn’t necessarily an insane man, but he’s a cruel, disgusting, over the top evil person. When you have a film where your protagonists are criminals, it’s necessary to have someone even more reprehensible than them, to help you root for them, and this film has that going for it 100 percent.

What it doesn’t have, however, is a good lead. The weakest part of the film, easily, is LaBeouf’s character; a very stock crime movie character. He’s the younger brother in the family, who wants to get in more on the business, who gets in over his head, and who has a romance with some girl, and blah blah blah. I was expecting LaBeouf to continue his trend of being horribly annoying (as he is in the “Transformers” movies), but he ends up actually doing a completely acceptable job. Everyone else in the film easily outshines him, but that’s okay, because even as our main character, we aren’t stuck with him for too much of the movie. Tom Hardy is great as the gruff older brother who really runs the business, and is somewhat of a local legend in the small town.

It’s a slow burn of a movie, not a lot happens in the first hour or so but that’s alright because you’re able to enjoy some great performances, some gorgeous cinematography, and some great direction by Hillcoat. At many points it feels like a very standard crime movie, but thankfully the cast and direction are able to elevate it past that.


4/5 Stars