Doesn’t the past always sound so exciting and cut-throat? Especially when it’s up there on the big screen looking all lavish and sexy. Take mediaeval times – a period when disease was rife, living standards were through the floor and you were oppressed at every angle by your local land baron. It wasn’t a happy time. But chuck in some Hollywood pizazz and you have something like A Knight’s Tale, or Robin Hood. The so-called “wild west” – a period of instability, uncertainty and crime also provides plum pickings for film-makers, so long as you throw in some idyllic looking towns, guns and raunchy lead actors. The only other area that rivals it for “sexy yet dangerous setting” is the period of post-Great War USA, the roaring 1920’s… cue Lawless. It was time of gangsters, prohibition and money, and Hollywood likes going back to mine it for more – we can’t get enough of the mob. But does Lawless, the newest film to draw from this period, figure more like The Untouchables, or does it have more in common with Bugsy Malone, minus all those grating kids?
For once, a film “based on a true story” means just that, as the film revolves around the Bondurant brothers – three guys that decided to flaunt the law and turn a tidy profit from the sale of illegally distilled moonshine. The book on which the movie is based, “The Wettest County in the World” was penned by the grandson of one of these brothers. Sure, the film-makers will have embellished some things, but overall you can take this as a “true story”. Come on – it’s got more truth to it than The Possession hasn’t it? The film follows Jack, Forrest and Howard Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke) as they build their business and live their lives, whilst contending with the ever-encroaching arm of the law, personified by Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce). It’s a case of pay off the authorities, or be burned. Literally.
The first thing that needs to be mentioned is the sheer calibre of acting talent on offer in this film. Whilst every single actor is fantastic (yes, even LaBeouf for you doubters out there), the film is really stolen by two people: Tom Hardy and Guy Pearce. Hardy continues his run of great form following Warrior and The Dark Knight Rises with a role that really calls for strong acting. He really sells you every emotion, be it sadness, anger or humour. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a laugh-a-minute performance (or film), but he delivers some brilliant wry one-liners that sit well.
Pearce meanwhile has had a rather odd portfolio as of late, with his weirdly over-made up appearance as a very old man in Prometheus and his peculiar decision to star in Lockout, which didn’t sit well with critics, but I quite enjoyed Pearce‘s performance. Like a grumpy John McClane in space. But his portrayal of Charlie Rakes here is sublime. He’s a thoroughly detestable and loathsome character and you’re really sold on this by Pearce from the way he walks, talks and sneers. Absolutely riveting.
My main problem with the film is pacing. Now, maybe this is due to the fact that I approached it without expectations – I didn’t know what I was going in to see really. I knew it was prohibition-era set, and featured a stellar cast, but little else. The trailers didn’t really show me what the core of the film was. If you think Lawless is going to be an all-out gangster film with guns and speakeasies galore, then you’re in for a cruel shock. I’d say that it’s more of a character-driven period drama that has criminals as its focus. Hardy and LaBeouf‘s characters grow throughout the running time and you actually care about them. This led to a rather slow opening first act whilst the scene was being set and the characters established. Had they been more vapid, I’m sure we could have delved into the core of the story much faster, but they’re not. I just felt there was too much padding in this area, which lowered my enjoyment levels somewhat. However, once the film kicked into gear, I was engrossed.
One thing I really ought to address is the ordering of the names in the posters, which would have you believe that Gary Oldman is a big player in this film – he’s typically listed after LaBeouf and Hardy, but don’t be swayed into seeing Lawless just because of his name. He doesn’t figure heavily in the plot. In fact, I could argue that he’s merely there as a “name” and to personify the Capone-esque gangsters of the era who’d drive round with Tommy guns. His inclusion baffled me somewhat and had a minuscule impact on the story. A great actor, sure, but his role was somewhat mis-sold. Similarly, putting Guy Pearce‘s name in the “and…” bracket at the end of the list is a) misleading and b) a disservice, as he’s one of the best things about the film. I guess he’s not seen as a “big draw” at the minute. Maybe Iron Man 3 will change that next year.
Ultimately, I found Lawless to be a compelling slice of cinema, but it wasn’t what I was expecting. Maybe this is through my own naivety, but maybe not. If you’re expecting a gun-toting action-fest then you’ll be cruelly disappointed. Conversely, if you want to see a great story acted out by a fantastic cast then this is just right for you. The film won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but I’d thoroughly recommend seeing it – just for Hardyand Pearce‘s acting.
In fact, this film has much in common with Inglourious Basterds, and not just in the way in which itself made another period of desperation: World War II, look more exciting than horrifying. It’s more the fact that you were drawn into Inglourious Basterds by the lure of the names Quentin Tarantino and Brad Pitt, but you walked out talking about Christoph Waltz and Michael Fassbender (maybe you mentioned Mike Myers, but not in the same positive light as these two). Similarly, you’re drawn into Lawless by the lure of the big names, like Shia LaBeouf and Tom Hardy, but you’ll leave talking about Guy Pearce, and rightfully Hardy too.