Something about Lawless ain't quite right. This prohibition-era drama is caught somewhere between the Western and the gangster flick, but stylistically feels like a cold and clinical sci-fi film. Shot in digital, with a too-clean image that resembles those 120 Hz modes on new TVs, the cinematography lacks the grit to match the violent tale. It gives Shia Labeouf top billing in a cast that includes the likes of Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, and Guy Pearce. Its soundtrack can be a bit too on the nose at times—beautiful, but weirdly modern-feeling.
If aesthetics were everything, I'd probably recommend you skip this one. Thankfully a cast of compelling characters and a solid tale give the squeaky clean visual style some much needed punch, making Lawless a film worth seeing.
In a time where city gangsters are pulling tommygun drive-bys in the city, we are taken beyond even the small town and into the outlying woods of Franklin County, Virginia, where three brothers run a bar and bootlegging business. Jack Bondurant (Shia Lebeouf) is young and hopeless, but his brothers Howard (Jason Clarke) and Forrest (Tom Hardy) pick up the slack, fueling a legend that the three are invincible. Forrest is quiet and reserved, sometimes responding in little more than a quick grunt, yet hiding a fire that he unleashes in quick moments of violence. Howard is the epitome of the middle child; a wild and unhinged alcoholic that lives in the sidelines until he is needed.
Together the three run moonshine throughout the county, to the law and townsfolk alike. Occasional troubles aside, things are going well until special deputy Charles Rakes (Guy Pearce) comes into town. He has his own problems, and upholding the law doesn't seem as important to him as cleansing the world as he sees fit. He is sharply dressed and intensely vain, he buys whores and makes them sit on a sheet of newspaper, and he's exactly the kind of man to destroy everything these three brothers hope to maintain.
Strong characters are what keep Lawless compelling. Perhaps they fall into archetypes but they are complex enough that I was gripped by the story from beginning to end. It helps that there are a few surprises along the way. The film is intensely violent in brief, almost shocking moments. The plot simmers to a slow boil and suddenly a neck is slit, a man is literally tarred and feathered, and other unpleasantries.
Aptly named, Lawless doesn't seem interested in the battles of good versus evil, or just versus unjust. This is a story of bad men doing bad things to other bad men. It's about good things happening to men that don't deserve them. When Jack proves himself to the group, he doesn't come of age, he becomes egotistical. He flaunts fancy suits and idolizes the mobster Floyd Banner (an underutilized Gary Oldman). You get the impression that the violence will only end when there's no more reason for these men to keep inflicting pain on each other.
In this regard, Lawless may be a bit too morally lacking for some. There's no grand lesson, but there is an impressive journey. We're taken through these characters lives and shown perhaps more than we want to see. In the end, as sterile as these events were portrayed, some uninspired cinematography couldn't get in the way of a genuinely entertaining film.