Lawless is saved from being a boring, lifeless gangster movie by it's performances. Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, and yes, even Shia Lebouf succeed in creating a fun, entertaining, not very substantial entry into American film industries favorite genres, gangster/outlaw cinema.
Tom Hardy is quickly headed toward being regarded as one of the best actors of his generation. He's taken on a number of roles that differ in significant ways and succeeded in making them all memorable, genuine and unpredictable. He does it again playing Forrest Bondurant, the leader of the bootlegging Bondurant clan during Prohibition. Based on a true story, chronicled in Matt Bondurant's novel "The Wettest County in the World", Hardy manages to create an enigmatic, charismatic stillness as the center of the films events. Shia Lebouf is definitely the films lead, but Hardy's character is really the heart of the story.
It's a story of outlaws fighting corrupt laws, corrupt lawmen and corrupt lawyers, and to that degree it's nothing unexpected and isn't going to surprise audiences with any new narrative elements. Lebouf is the youngest of the Bondurant brothers, unsuited for the bootlegging empire his brothers (played by Hardy and Jason Clarke) have built. In pretty typical fashion, he's portrayed as not having the stomach for the brutality brought to bear against the clan as Guy Pearce's "Special Deputy" Charlie Rakes tries to bring them under the thumb of Franklin County Virginia's newest district attorney. The Bondurant's refuse to be shaken down and give over any of their profit to the law for protection. So begins the battle of wills and blood spilling. Lebouf does a good job of conveying his characters desire to get out from the shadow of his brothers to become their equal and being overwhelmed by the course of events he's experiencing. It's not new territory for him though, and at this point, he's nearing the land of unshakable typecasting as his generations Keanu Reeves playing the guy who is always clueless and a few steps behind.
Guy Pearce initially comes across as somewhat silly and seems to have completely forgotten whatever craft he'd brought to films like Memento and L.A. Confidential. In the first act, his performance seemed as if it were some kind of poorly done, ironic caricature, until a point later in the story where it becomes clear that it is a caricature, but it's not actually Guy Pearce turning in a poor performance. The character himself is putting on that caricature to mask the fact that he's not much more than a sadist of a most savage variety. Explaining it almost confers a degree of meta-narrative, but within the framework of the film, it's not. It's done relatively subtly, with good writing and is the kind of moment that makes the film interesting and entertaining.
As well as it succeeds, Lawless suffers from a few problems. The first being that there are periods of time spent with Shia Lebouf's Jack Bondurant that seem overly long. The romantic side story that surrounds his courting of Mia Wasikowska's character, the daughter of a local preacher, draws some of the propulsive energy out of the rest of the films events and narrative. There can be a case made that making an audience anticipate the time they spend with a character can be useful, but in this case, the film suffers whenever it moves away from Tom Hardy or Guy Pearce for too long. With both actors having created characters as interesting and unpredictable as they are, even as the story is something we've all seen before, it throws a stark light on how much the film is relying on an unnecessary romantic subplot. There are a few scenes that are attempts to shoe horn the romance in and make it integral to the rest of the story and they don't fail completely, but in that subplot, they're the exception rather than the rule.
The other place the film falls short is that it makes a few attempts to convey what is going on in the world outside of Franklin County and the drama surrounding the Bondurant's, but they're not fully realized and lack enough weight to have any impact on the story. Prohibition is an incredibly interesting time in American history, and much of what we understand to be organized crime came into existence then. As true as that may be, the story and performances are interesting enough that, with the exception of a few of the romantic interludes, the film will keep an audience invested. Adding those nods toward the rest of what was happening in the country during that time period has the same result as adding the romance, it highlights that they're unnecessary unless they are going to be explored more fully.
It also suffers from one of the problems common to the genre. The female characters are completely under developed and the script doesn't give them very much to do except be the objects of the male leads attentions. Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska turn in good performances based on what they're given to work with, but they aren't really given very much. Chastain's character somewhat more developed than Wasikowska's, but even there, her character is more of a genre trope than it seems to be anything really developed with care. Without Chastain's ability to project significant depth of emotion and intelligence, even with that the character's relationship to Hardy's Forrest is, it would have been something that took away from the experience of seeing the film. Chastain is capable of preventing that, but in considering the film later, it becomes just how thinly written the female characters in the movie are.
There is also one other highlight that makes clear how little was thought about the female characters during the script writing. The last few years have given audiences a taste of a much more subdued and dour Gary Oldman. He has a very small role in Lawless, but it's closer to the kind of role that made cinephiles across the globe develop a profound respect for him. It's a larger than life character, completely in charge, and completely ruthless. He doesn't have very much screen time, but the moments he does have are excellent. It's just good to see Gary Oldman exercising those abilities again and doing so as well as he ever has. Even though he has as little screen time as he does, Oldman's character still manages to seem full and has weight. Neither Chastain or Wasikowska's characters are afforded the same amount of thought.
Lawless isn't a waste of time. It's not going to go down as one of the seminal pieces of gangster cinema, but it is entertaining and has some strong performances that are worth seeing. Having seen director John Hillcoat's earlier films, The Proposition, which he also collaborated on with Nick Cave in the writers chair and Guy Pearce as a lead, Lawless gives the impression that the areas where this film suffers may have been completely out of Hillcoat's hands and may have been part of the deal to get the film into production. The film Hillcoat is probably best known for, The Road, didn't suffer from these problems either. That being said, there are much, much, much worse entries in the genre that didn't even bother to aspire to being as well photographed, scored or performed as this film is.