By: Garrett Collins
Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke and Guy Pearce
The genre of western films is something that took me until my adult years to appreciate. Try as I did when I was younger, I just could not get into them. Even one of the most popular westerns of the 90s, Unforgiven, rubbed me the wrong way and its aesthetic was not endearing to me at all. However, I could see why people like Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman and, of course, Clint Eastwood, would want to participate in them, as they get to do what most of us did as kids, which is play cowboys. Cut to this year. Two actors who have been main staples in blockbuster films have decided to go indie in Lawless and, you got it, get to play cowboys. Tom Hardy and Shia LaBeouf, the two actors in question, must have seen this script as a change of pace from what they had been used to. After all, tommy guns and cowboy hats are different than fighting transforming robots and caped tortured characters. Being two decades removed from my first Unforgiven viewing experience (I have since grown to like it), I was looking forward to seeing both these actors in the same element as Eastwood and company. And, while Lawless had the look and feel of a great western film, it unfortunately comes up just a little bit short of being the masterpiece it intends to be.
While watching Lawless, it came to mind that the actor I was looking forward to most in seeing if he could handle this aesthetic was Hardy. The man has an unbridled charisma and range that generally leads to an extended career, and stepping into the spurs of Forrest Bondurant, Hardy brings his assertiveness and piercing stares, making him a solid staple in the film. Although his process of bulking up for Dark Knight Rises hampered his intentions of seeming more vulnerable, Hardy brings his all, and the layers he displays within his character here show he definitely can rise past his previous soup can speaking role of Bane. As younger brother Jack Bondurant, LaBeouf is just as effective. Say what you will about the breaks he has been given, but I have always maintained that LaBeouf is one of the most effective actors at displaying enthusiasm. And, he brings just the same amount of it here. As a film that is based on a true story, it is important to connect in some way to the characters that are at the forefront. And, the two actors in these roles do their best to make them endearing and easy to root for.
As far as the supporting roles go, they were also pretty well done. While he was always great at them, it was tiring seeing Oldman in the villainess parts that made him the go to guy for those sets of roles in the 90s. Things like The Fifth Element and Air Force One, while no fault of his own, made his act seem tired. However, after seeing him as the ‘on the side of good’ Commissioner Gordon in the three Nolan Batman films, it was kind of refreshing to see him return to that 90s form in Lawless. As Floyd Banner, Oldman is gleefully evil. From the second him and LaBeouf exchange slow motion glances to how he conducts himself in a stand-off that takes place later on in the film, Oldman made for a great villain this time out. Pearce, playing the also villainess Charlie Rakes, brings not only a stand-out greased up haircut (which was his idea), he also has the evil charisma necessary to make us hate him. I have spoken in the past about how I feel Pearce’s career has not been as stand-out as it should be, yet I think he gets the combination of villany and snarkiness needed for a role such as this. However, the most stand-out performance for me was Chastain. While it was not surprising seeing her in this dramatic indie western, she had the done to death role of a former dancer trying to straighten herself out. And, as Maggie Beauford, she brings a layer or two more than the script really calls for. She does what most great actresses do, which is let her eyes do most of the acting. This girl has been in many films the past couple years for a reason. And, if she keeps taking on and conquering roles like this (she was also excellent in the overrated The Help), she will keep getting thrown in her still bright acting limelight.
As far as the direction goes, John Hillcoat (The Road) once again shows he has a firm grasp on how to draw out drama. He paints a great picture, using smoky and murky bars, as well as the long-lost activity of smoking in a hospital to create the mood of the film. He also uses old tricks such as far away reflections and a blood stained window to build the drama, and proves he can create tension with the action packed yet emotion filled finale. Where I had big problems with Lawless begins and ends with its script (adapted by musician Nick Cave). As discomforting and humbling as it was watching Jack court Bertha (Wasikowska), it started to get old real quick. Yes, it makes his eventual success feel that much more effective, yet it just got tiring seeing himself get more and more stuck in the mud while making himself look like a fool and making the minutes tick by even slower. Also, while it was more than effective most of the time, Hillcoat’s direction tends to show faults every once in a while (man, Jack heals fast!).
Overall, I would definitely recommend checking out Lawless. While it is far from the masterpiece it intends to be, the film is beautifully shot, with light always being in the perfect mood setting place (even at night). There are also some pretty gritty scenes of gore, and seeing the final picture of the whole family portrayed right before the end credits tended to put all I had just seen in perspective. Where, as I tended to think of westerns as boring, there were people who did things that these films portray that laid the foundation for what society is today. Gripping and more than formidably made, Lawless is not flawless. Yet, its characterizations are a plus. As is Hardy’s styling sweater.
4 out of 5