Gangsters and dust. Those are the primary ingredients in John Hilcoat’s latest feature that combines elements of classic Hollywood westerns and gangster films for one of the director’s patented arty guy movies like The Proposition or The Road. Unfortunately, unlike those previous movies it appears that Hilcoat had his film tampered with for the first time. While both those films had a reasonably commercial premise and guns on the poster, they were very methodically paced and existential tales with unexpected bursts of ultra violence. Not exactly crowd-pleasers and nor should his new film Lawless be as well. The angst ridden dustbowl setting and world of isolated bootleggers should have been prime material for Hilcoat’s thoughtfully violent ways. Instead the final film feels somewhat truncated and rushed. Sure, it works as entertainment, but with this genre and filmmaker audiences should be able to expect more.

Photo by Richard Foreman, Jr. SMPSP

Based loosely on true events, Lawless focuses is about the Bondurant brothers in a dusty depression-ear Franklin County Virginia. Like many folks at the time, the Bondurants survived off of bootlegging, selling it out of their gas station. The leader of the clan was Forrest (Tom Hardy), a tough as nails strong, silent type who is something of a local legend and considered indestructible (not that surprising given that he survives several gun wounds and a slit throat over the course of the film). He’s none to bright though, but his scrawny baby brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf) is and combined with his even scrawnier moonshine-brewing buddy (Dane DeHaan), they take family business to the next level. All of a sudden the Bondurants are flush with cash and fancy cars, which tends to attract attention. Soon the local law enforcement wants a cut of the action and the nutjob special agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) is brought in to deal out justice, kick ass, and overact. Sounds like a tommy gun war is upon us. Plus Gary Oldman pops up as another gangster as well as Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska as love interests for Hardy and Labeouf. I mention those folks last and in passing because they are barely involved with the story.

Photo by Richard Foreman, Jr. SMPSP

It’s hard to imagine the Hilcoat would want to waste stars/talents like Oldman, Chastain, and Wasikowska on nothing roles given the strong work he always gets out of actors. Since Lawless feels oddly truncated at times, chances are what was once a sprawling multi-character depression gangster epic has been reduced to a more straightforward action tale. Now the girls have nothing to do, Oldman pops up for two great scenes and serves little purpose in the narrative, and worst of all Shia LaBeouf is the central focus. Now, Shia isn’t the world’s worst actor. He’s just very limited. He can play snotty kids in-over-their-heads (which thankfully this character is), but ask him to emote or appear even mildly threatening and the struggle begins (and unfortunately there’s plenty of that here). On the plus side, Tom Hardy is the heart of the film (if not the protagonist) and is his usual brilliant self. As per usual, he defines the character with an odd voice that’s distracting at first before becoming oddly indispensable. He’s asked to play a character who shakes off getting his throat slit in a realistic world and manages not only to pull it off, but make it inexplicably hilarious. Oldman may only have a pair of scenes, but he dives into his evil character like it’s 1995 again and no one does it better. Weirdly, even though Hardy and Oldman are in the cast, the flamboyant villain is played by the typically reserved Guy Pearce. The man shaved off his eyebrows and got fitted for a stack of ridiculous suits and pitches his performance to the rafters. It’s highly theatrical performance that constantly veers on the side of overacting, yet  even when Pearce steps too far he’s never not entertaining. Had Lawless been a more serious and dramatic film the role may have been distracting. In the end, this thing turned into gritty entertainment and Pearce’s unhinged prancing is it worth it for the smiles.

Hilcoat gets his usual strong work out of actors, punctuates the tale with viciously shocking moments of violence, and creates hermetically sealed frames of American mythology with his camera. It certainly looks like one of his movies, but doesn’t feel like one. Most of the action, violent, or suspense scenes are on the money, but more often than not something feels off outside of those moments. Scenes end awkwardly with chunks of important dialogue clearly missing. Incredibly inappropriate music awkwardly underscores the love scenes while pitch perfect score comes in elsewhere. In other words, this thing was clearly messed with in editing and there’s most likely a 2.5-3 hour version of this movie sitting on a computer somewhere. Now here’s the thing, certain flaws (like say casting LaBeouf or the clichéd female characters) couldn’t have been caused by editing and must have been inherent in the material. The long version of Lawless  might have been more intellectually satisfying, but also probably wouldn’t have been as entertaining. If you can ignore the inconsistencies of Lawless, it’s probably one of the best American gangster movies of the last 4 or 5 years. It’s just too bad that is that there are constant hints throughout Lawless suggesting that it could had should have been more. The movie we got was good, I just can’t help but wonder if there is a truly great version out there.

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