Lawless is a grim, gritty movie that succeeds in telling a story but generally fails in making the audience care. That’s probably because none of the characters are particularly interesting or fresh.

Here’s a trailer:

The deets:

Released August 29, 2012

Written by Nick Cave, based on the novel by Matt Bondurant

Directed by John Hillcoat

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

Rated: R

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The Bondurants live in the Appalachian mountains, running a moonshine business during Prohibition. The leader of the clan is Forrest (Hardy), who survived the war and probably believes the popular legend that he’s invincible. He leads his two brothers in making  and selling 100% proof moonshine and running a family tavern. Howard (Clarke) is the big brother who drinks a little too much but is relentlessly loyal. Then there’s Jack (LaBeouf), the youngest of the three and known to be pretty much a pantywaist.

Jack is tired of being seen as a coward, especially when compared to his mighty brothers, so he hatches a plan to make a lot more money from the moonshine business by dealing with a big city criminal called Floyd Banner (Oldman). Unfortunately, there is also a new, sadistic lawman in town by the name of Charlie Rakes (Pearce). Rakes is OCD-tidy and clean, and he has no interest in upholding the law. Instead, he wants others to bow to his will. He’s unrepentantly and opaquely evil.

So while Jack leads the Bondurant business into extreme success, also building a massive and secret distillery, Rakes is out shutting down all the moonshiners in the area. Rakes’ goal is to take down the Bondurants, so he uses his sadistic torture to try to find the Bondurant distillery.

Added to these plots is the appearance of Maggie (Chastain), a beautiful red-head from Chicago who has a history but who wants to live in a simpler place and conveniently chooses to get a job at the Bondurant tavern. She and Forrest have an instant connection.

Meanwhile, Jack is courting a rigidly religious girl called Bertha (Wasikowska) and turning into an ostentatiously successful criminal. You know he’s going to make a stupid mistake that endangers his family business and the lives of those he loves.


The acting, for starters, in Lawless is all kinds of excellent. Pearce pulls of cruel and pure evil well, despite the depth of his evilness being totally incomprehensible. Hardy conveys tree-trunk solidity and a capacity for total brutality quite well, but his manner of speech and physical presence make him hard to really get inside of. Clarke is excellent, as always, giving the audience a little more access into an otherwise simple character who just wants to drink, work hard for his family, and chill out. He will follow Forrest to the depths of violence if Forrest wants him to.

Then there’s LaBeouf. I want him to stop being a fast-talker for once in one of his movies. He needs to get away from these roles; he’s got some serious problems if he can’t get a role that doesn’t ask him to be a wise-cracking, cocky dip nozzle. That said, this role does ask him to tone it down and Jack has something more of an arc that his characters typically have.

Chastain is steady, incredibly beautiful, and very damaged as Maggie. The character, like every character in this movie, is convenient and opaque, but Chastain still gives Maggie grace and tenderness, as well as toughness. Wasikowska does a lovely job as a cowed but curious young lady who finds joy in simple things and who responds beautifully to Jack’s courting.

Pearce’s Rakes is a massive, totally absurd caricature. This is not Pearce’s fault. Pearce hits the ball so far out of the park that it is probably in the Thunderdome. This guy has commitment. But the character– gosh it’s bad.

Which brings us to the writing. This is not a new story. Noble criminals are just minding their business until a selfishly corrupt lawman shows up and now we have a revenge story where the noble criminals are totally justified in being unbelievably brutal. The characters are all devices that allow the violence, grim outlook on the world, nihilism, and fashionably awful things to happen.

I didn’t like this movie and I doubt I would like the book. I don’t need to see a man’s neck sawed at. I don’t think anyone does. Needlessly brutal, pointlessly bleak, and irritatingly glorifying of violence and criminality without real consequence, Lawless is more than forgettable. It’s a waste of phenomenal talent. It’s only because of absurdly good acting that this movie is watchable.

Content warnings: Graphic and bloody violence, loads of profanity, a scene of nudity and sexuality

Writing: 1.5          Acting: 5          Overall: 3

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