By Bob Garver
“Lawless” is one of those movies where the supporting characters are halfway interesting and the main character is in no way interesting. In the early moments of the film you’ll meet intriguing characters played by Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, and Gary Oldman. You’ll also meet a little runt played by Shia LaBeouf, trying to show that he’s grown up from the “Transformers” franchise. You know LaBeouf’s character is the main character because his name comes first on all the posters. But you don’t yet know the ratio of screen time for all the characters. You figure that maybe the supporting players will have roles juicy enough to carry him and that “Lawless” may go down as a memorable ensemble piece. No such luck. The focus of the film is very much on LaBeouf and there’s not much that the better actors can do to save it.
LaBeouf plays Jack Bondurant, youngest of three brothers running a bootleg moonshining operation in Prohibition-era Virginia. He’s constantly in the shadow of his older, tougher brothers Howard (Jason Clarke) and Forrest (Hardy). Forrest in particular is a revered local figure with a series of tall tales of greatness that follows him everywhere. People say that Hardy’s voice as Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises” reminded them of the James Bond villain Goldfinger. His voice here reminds me of Buffalo Bill in “The Silence of the Lambs”. I kept expecting him to tell someone to put the lotion in the basket. Jack wants to become a more integral part of his brothers’ operation, and basically decides that if he can’t be one of the tough ones, he’ll be the smart one. Spend some time with Jack and you’ll realize that he isn’t cut out for that role either.
The operation is threatened by the arrival of Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a crooked big-city lawman who is willing to let local liquor suppliers do business as long as he can profit from it. Rakes himself is terribly sleazy, his oily hair is sleazier, and somehow his elitist bowtie is sleaziest. He and the brothers get crossways and Forrest is taken down. Jack decides that it’s up to him to save the business, and he sells a mass order to a celebrity mobster (Gary Oldman, whose role is glorified cameo). Jack soon fancies himself a loveable outlaw and enjoys the high life until Rakes rattles him with violent consequences.
There are not one but two romantic subplots in the film, the more enjoyable of which is between Forrest and a waitress named Maggie (Jessica Chastain). Chastain is her usual spunky self and she certainly makes up for the fact that Forrest doesn’t have a romantic bone in his body (though he’s perfectly willing to beat people up in her honor). Less appealing is the relationship between Jack and a preacher’s daughter (Mia Wasikowska). I cannot for the life of me understand what a right proper girl like her sees in an arrogant criminal like Jack, except of course that it’s guaranteed to aggravate Daddy.
There’s really no good reason for “Lawless” to center around Jack Bondurant instead of Forrest Bondurant. Even when Forrest isn’t on screen, the other characters are talking about him, spreading his legend. There should be a memorable one-on-one showdown between him and Rakes, but the problem is that Jack is always in the way. It isn’t really Shia LaBeouf’s fault that Jack is written as such an annoying “little brother” archetype, though he could have afforded to bring more charm to his romantic scenes. Jack isn’t fit to date a nice girl, he isn’t fit run the family business, he isn’t fit to get in a fight or a shootout, and he isn’t fit to carry “Lawless”.
Two Stars out of Five.
“Lawless” is rated R for strong bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity. Its running time is 116 minutes.