Written by Nick Cave
Directed by John Hillcoat
In 1931, among the foothills of Virginia, the Bondurant brothers were successful moonshine runners. Forrest (Tom Hardy) runs the operations with a cool even hand making sure to reign in wild man Howard (Jason Clarke) the youngest and greenest brother Jack (Shia LeBeouf). They also have the local law under their thumb by sharing some of the product from time to time. Things change when U.S. Marshall Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce) is assigned to the region and works alongside the state’s attorney to pressure the Bondurants into handing over a more significant percentage of their profits. Meanwhile, Jack becomes obsessed with courting the preacher’s daughter (Mia Wasikowska) while Forrest strikes up a growing intimacy with city girl on the run Maggie (Jessica Chastain). Oh yeah, Gary Oldman plays a Chicago gangster who has moved into the area. Movie crowded enough yet?
This is the first film in my new Annapurna marathon, and it’s not a great start. Before I get into Lawless, let’s go over some of the background of Annapurna. Megan Ellison founded the film production company in 2012. Ellison is the daughter of famed tech giant and CEO of Oracle Larry Ellison, so she came from a privileged background which allowed her access to more exclusive avenues in Hollywood. She got her start in 2006 working as a producer and helped bring some small pictures to the screen with her most significant success being The Coen Brothers’ True Grit. Her founding of Annapurna came out of a desire to more sophisticated and mature films to large cineplexes, something she believes the major Hollywood studios are abandoning. So, how is Lawless?
It’s really bad, which is a massive shame because there is a phenomenal pedigree with this film. Director Hillcoat and screenwriter Cave previously worked together on the vastly underrated Australian western The Proposition. It’s one of my favorite of the revisionist westerns of our times because it has a setting unique from the American branch yet shows how similar both regions were. It’s a very poetic, slow-burn film that makes sure the violence we witness has an emotional weight to it. Pacing is giving top preference so that we feel the building of tension as the forces of good and evil are coming in an inevitable clash. If you haven’t seen The Proposition and it sounds like something up your alley, I highly recommend it.
Lawless feels overstuffed in a way that The Proposition kept things lean. Just from writing the plot summary, I realized how many actors feel wasted and how many plots go nowhere. The Gary Oldman subplot feels like it is going to be very important and tie back in at the end, but his character disappears from the film. I noticed a lot of awkward edits that disoriented me when characters were moving from one location or another or time was supposed to have passed. These transitions are incredibly unclear, and I had to pause to figure out where and when we were. Because the film is full to the brim with characters (oh, I forgot to mention Dane DeHaan as a disabled moonshine brewer) no one gets any real character development. They have quirks and descriptors but nothing I would describe as traits. Moreover, there is a real lack of a strong character arc for most of them.
While The Proposition felt genuine and honest, probably due to Hillcoat and Cave’s Australian background, Lawless feels equally hollow. Everyone is playing their character as a trope, and I get that the film is working with those elements of gangster pictures, but there has to be reality beneath the archetypes otherwise you end up with a parody. Guy Pearce mainly sticks out as playing his character in such a bizarre way. I was reminded of William Forsythe’s turn as Flattop in the Dick Tracy movie. If the whole film had been presented in such a heightened reality, this might have worked, but everything else is so much more muted.
Lawless is not a great start to Annapurna’s run of films, but it does fit their mission statement as coming from a strongly artistic group of filmmakers. Maybe with different source material they could have made a better movie or with some more time spent on fleshing out the relationships between the core characters Lawless could have been more engaging. As I said earlier, see The Proposition but don’t rush to find a copy of Lawless.