Sunday, 28 April 2013

Film Review | Lawless (2012)

Based on the real lives of the bootlegging Bondurant brothers during prohibition era America, Lawless feels throughout as though it wants to reach the heights of cinema's most revered gangster tales. But despite an impressive cast of acting talent, it never manages to achieve anywhere near the greatness it so desperately and ambitiously strives for.

Lawless' main cast is arguably its strongest asset. Tom Hardy does well as middle brother Forrest, growling his way through a part which, whilst certainly not the most challenging he has taken on in his career so far, allows the actor to create an interesting character through a mix of understatement and intensity. Opposite Hardy as youngest Bondurant brother Jack, Shia LaBoeuf gives the best performance of his career so far but one that still lacks consistency. At times LaBeouf delivers some pleasingly strong emotional moments, but at others feels out of his depth; whilst certainly not an awful turn, it's easy to think of several other acting talents of a similar age who could have delivered a lot more in the role. Rounding off the trio of brothers is Jason Clarke as Howard, the oldest but unfortunately also the sibling most underwritten and underdeveloped, feeling too one-note for the actor to create anything genuinely memorable.

The supporting cast elsewhere delivers mixed results. Guy Pearce delivers with an unsettling and intense performance as Special Deputy Charley Rakes, stealing the show in the film's opening act; it's a shame that both the character and Pearce's performance descends into over-theatrical ludicrousness by the film's climax.  Gary Oldman does reliably well in a role more akin to the maniacal characters of earlier in his career than the more restrained parts the actor has been seen in recently, but is also vastly underutilized throughout. Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain are both fine, but are given very little of interest to do other than be accessories to the men.

The screenplay from Nick Cave is at times strong, but lacks the narrative thread needed to tie all its different elements together. The slow-burning feud between the Bondurants and Rakes is compelling throughout, but both of the film's attempts at romantic subplots fail to do anything genuinely meaningful: Hardy and Chastain's chemistry props up their love affair, but the scenes between LaBeouf and Wasikowska continually fall flat.

Lawless is regularly at its best when delivering brutal violence, with John Hillcoat's direction feeling most effective when focused upon the grittier and more unforgiving elements of prohibition era society. Elsewhere, the director's artistic choices feel perfunctory at best. There are moments of impressive cinematography but these are far too seldom to leave any lasting impact. Hillcoat's execution by and large feels too clean cut and lacking in stylistic mastery to deliver an authentic mise-en-scène.

Lawless ends up as an enjoyable period crime drama, but also one that wavers far too much between successful and ineffective elements. There's certainly a fair amount here to like, but there's also too much that falls significantly short of what it needs to be to create something genuinely memorable. Hillcoat's film manages to entertain for most of its running time, but with several big talents involved and a time period undeniably compelling in itself, to deliver a film that manages to entertain without offering much else ultimately feels like a wasted opportunity.


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