Dick Cheney’s family reunion.
Dick Cheney’s family reunion.

With Lawless, I was hoping for a late summer powerhouse that would top off a mediocre season with something to remember. I figured a film with John Hillcoat at the helm and featuring the likes of Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Guy Pearce and Shia LaBeouf couldn’t fail.

While it isn’t a complete failure, it is a bit of a letdown. Considering the star power and the director at hand, I was expecting much more than your typical backwoods moonshine thriller.

Hillcoat is responsible for two movies I like very much. The Proposition (starring Pearce) and The Road (Pearce has a couple of minutes in that one, too) are the kind of dark, stylized filmmaking that makes you remember a director’s name. Hillcoat telling the “true story” of the Bondurant brothers, Depression-era bootleggers who stood up to the law, had a great amount of appeal.

It makes the mistake of positioning LaBeouf’s youngest brother Jack as the primary character, when his older brothers Forrest (Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) are far more compelling. LaBeouf isn’t necessarily bad in the role; it’s just that Hardy and Clarke are way better and far more interesting to watch. Whenever the screenplay (written by Nick Cave) turns to Jack, it dulls out. When Forrest takes center stage, things light up.

As Charlie Rakes, a lawman sent from Chicago to Virginia to mess with bootleggers, Pearce goes the cartoon villain route. It’s fun to watch at times, but much like Michael Shannon in the recent Premium Rush, the nutty, overblown performance seems out of place (Trivia note: Shannon was originally cast in the production but left it after financial problems caused it to stall).

Pearce is appropriately nasty at times, but clownish in others. There were moments where I was reminded of Joe Piscopo’s Danny Vermin from Johnny Dangerously (“My mother kicked me in the balls once … once!”). Yeah, that’s an obscure reference, but an accurate one, nonetheless.

The Pearce performance also reminded me of Gary Oldman’s villainous, outlandish, and far superior scene chewing in The Professional and, wouldn’t you know it, Oldman shows up here as the gun-toting Floyd Banner. I liked Oldman’s villain more than the Pearce one but, like Hardy taking a back seat to LaBeouf, Oldman’s baddie gets less attention.

Hardy is perhaps the film’s best ingredient as the big brother who refuses to play ball with dirty lawmen and refuses to die no matter what they throw at him. As I mentioned earlier this summer, Hardy’s performance in The Dark Knight Rises as Bane left me underwhelmed, but that wasn’t really his fault (I blame the sound man!). Here, he is without a mask and allowed to act his ass off. He does so quite nicely.

The movie does actually have a couple of high profile actresses in it, basically acting out roles that don’t contribute much to the story. Jessica Chastain plays Maggie, the girl with the mysterious background who takes a job waiting tables and fancies Forrest. I love Chastain in almost anything she does, but she is given nothing memorable to do here unless you count a more than surprising nude scene. I repeat … Jessica Chastain is partially nude in this movie.

Mia Wasikowska fares a little better as Jack’s love interest, a religious man’s daughter who likes the bad boys. There’s a lift to her performance here that has been missing from some of her other recent roles, most notably her droll turn in Alice in Wonderland.

LaBeouf just doesn’t fit in this time out. He’s got a drawl that sounds like he watched too many Larry the Cable Guy movies before the cameras started rolling, and his big dramatic moments feel far from effortless. He has enough decent screen minutes to warrant a supporting performance, but not enough to make him the movie’s focus.

So, when I tally up this year, Lawless will be far away from my year’s worst list. But it will rank high on my list of greatest disappointments. So much for that late summer cinematic booster shot.

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