Directed By: John Hillcoat

Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Guy Pearce, and Dane DeHaan

On paper, Lawless may be the perfect movie for me.  I've been in need of a good crime movie as of late.  They're so rare these days.  On top of that, it's about moonshine bootlegging during Prohibition.  That's just about as good as it gets for the SoberFilmCritic.  That being said, Lawless doesn't fully realize its potential as director John Hillcoat misuses his talent and is limited by the material written by Matt Bondurant.

In Franklin County, Virginia, Prohibition has led to the rise of the moonshine industry.  Bootleggers everywhere are getting in on the action.  Forrest and Howard Bondurant (Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke) are two of the toughest men in this often violent line of work.  The Bondurant Brothers are thought to be indestructible.  Along with their brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf) who does the driving, these country boys are raking in some serious dough as bootleggers, and they won't let anyone ice them out of the business.

There's a new man in town by the name of Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), however, and this tough cop from Chicago intends to get a cut of the pie or kill the whole industry (literally).  When Rakes and the cops approach the Bondurant Brothers, Forrest makes it clear that they will continue to make and distribute moonshine whiskey without interference by the cops.  Unfortunately, two of Rake's men slit Forrest's throat one night.  In his brother's absence, Jack sees his opportunity to take the reins of the business.  He starts by doing business with the toughest man in the land, Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman).  Meanwhile, Forrest hires a pretty woman by the name of Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain) to work at the bar, and Jack begins courting Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska), the local preacher's daughter.

While it's a decent film, I've got a lot of issues with Lawless.  I'm going to start off by hitting my number one issue, Hillcoat's misuse of his acting talent.  Where the hell is Gary Oldman?  For a top billed cast member, he's on screen for less than five minutes of the movie.  Since Oldman has been playing roles as Commissioner Gordon, Sirius Black, and George Smiley, we haven't seen too much of him as a baddie in recent years.  We all miss the days of him giving us villains in films like The Professional, Air Force One, and The Fifth Element.  Oldman as a bad guy means you’re in for one damn good show.  While he's not the antagonist of the film, he's certainly not a good guy.  Whether wielding a tommy gun or a shovel, Oldman oozes with an unmistakably badass vibe as Floyd Banner.  There is no need to deprive moviegoers of such a great performer.

We also don't get enough of Guy Pearce as Charlie Rakes.  Pearce is utterly delightful and has redeemed himself for a terrible performance in Lockout earlier this year.  He's not the kind of guy who takes the gloves off when things get bloody.  He's the kind of guy who puts him on so he won't get his hands dirty as he beats the living hell out of some poor schmuck. Pearce certainly gets more screen time than Oldman.  For giving such a smooth yet chilling performance though, he just doesn't get enough time on camera.  For this, I blame director John Hillcoat.

While he underutilizes his veterans, Hillcoat uses Tom Hardy too much.  I understand that Forrest is this legendary figure in Franklin County and that he's Jack's older, tougher brother.  Nonetheless, his performance just isn't connecting with me as a viewer.  It feels somewhat awkward because I just don't like his character.  Because he's one of the protagonists, he's supposed to be a likable criminal, and he fails to do this.  He fails to navigate the fine line of being a protagonist in a crime film.  He has to be brutal and vicious, and we're supposed to love him for it.  That just never happens.  I dare say that he was more likable as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises earlier this summer.

The other cast members give enjoyable performances.  As Jack Bondurant, Shia LaBeouf steps up to the plate and gives a decent performance.  While I’m not his biggest fan, he definitely brings some comic relief to this often bloody film.  This is the first time we’ve seen him since last year’s Transformers film.  He should continue staying away from acting in Michael Bay films.  As Bertha Minnix, Mia Wasikowska does well in this small role.  Despite the fact that she’s simply Jack’s love interest, she manages to bring a certain warmth to the film every time she’s on camera.  She has a very unique screen presence, one that’s definitely valued. 

It’s also nice to see Jessica Chastain taking on the role of a strong woman as Maggie Beauford.  In the last year or so, she’s primarily played quiet or subdued characters in films like Tree of Life, Take Shelter, and Coriolanus.  It’s good to see her stepping out of that shell some more.  Her character balks at the legend of Forrest and embraces a wounded man with all his imperfections.  Finally, Dane DeHaan is enjoyable as cripple Cricket.  It’s interesting to see him playing a nice character as opposed to his role in Chronicle as supervillain Andrew.

Beyond the misuse of talent, Lawless has a rosy ending.  I won’t say who dies and who lives.  I will say that the film’s conclusion is ultimately not satisfying.  It’s the same issue I had with Savages earlier this year.  Violent movies should end violently.  It should be a bloody mess.  No crime movie should ever close on a happy note.  I shouldn’t walk out with a warm and fuzzy feeling.  There’s something that’s just not right about that, and I can’t let this go.  Hillcoat knows the gangster movie playbook yet he completely drops the ball on this one.

Despite my emphasis on these issues with the movie, Lawless is definitely enjoyable.  There’s plenty of action, a half-way decent story, and some enjoyable performances from the cast.  I just expect more from it given the all-star cast with which John Hillcoat is working.  While I should recommend a little moonshine whiskey for this one to honor the spirit of the film, you’ll only need a few beers.  Lawless gets a 0.06% rating.