Movie Review: Lawless

By Edwin Davies

August 28, 2012

Guy Pearce is balding from the middle out.

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Jack clearly idolizes this man who so fully embodies the archetypal gangster, and once money starts rolling in from bootlegging, Jack starts to model himself on the gangsters he reads about. As he starts to fancy himself as a big shot, evidenced by his increased confidence when courting a minister's daughter (Mia Wasikowska), the power of that myth becomes more and more apparent. Even when he is posing for photographs, he affects the style of his heroes, brandishing guns or standing with a cigarette dangling lazily from his lips. Like Forrest, Jack starts to form his own image of himself which he then strives to live up to in real life, with both positive and negative results.

LaBeouf is a much-maligned actor, largely due to his involvement in the Transformers franchise, but here he makes a good case that he was bad in those films because the films themselves were terrible, not because he is an inherently awful actor. Put simply, LaBeouf is the best he has ever been in Lawless, which sounds like faint praise but resolutely is not. As the runt of an admittedly feral litter, Jack comes across as wily yet untested, someone who fancies himself a man of vision but has little idea what the family business actually entails. LaBeouf does a great job of putting across Jack's ambition and determination without ever losing sight of his inexperience. When he starts showing up in brand new suits, he manages to look both impressive and ridiculous, which is as much a result of LaBeouf's ability to convey Jack's awkwardness as it is Hillcoat's ability to shoot it or Cave's ability to write it. It's a strong performance, especially relative to the rest of his work, which suggests there is hope for him yet.


That's not to say that Lawless is a one-man show since the whole cast does great work. The ever-reliable Hardy gives one of his most enjoyable performances as Forrest, nicely balancing the character's easy charm with his obvious, frequently tested capacity for brutality; Jason Clarke is convincingly chaotic as Howard, the angriest and drunkest of the three brothers; and Jessica Chastain is suitably feisty as Maggie, a woman who comes to work for the Bondurants at their family bar who gradually gets drawn further into their world.

It's Pearce who is the true standout, though, as the fastidious and fascistic Rakes. It's a superbly villainous part that manages to be both ostentatious and quietly chilling. Rakes is a deeply unsettling presence who brims with hate, and as intimidating as Hardy is as Forrest, there's something unnerving about seeing the indifference with which Rakes carries out his campaign against the Bondurants. This is saying nothing of how terrifying it is when things don't go his way and he becomes truly unhinged. Charlie Rakes is a great villain who fits perfectly into the heightened, mythic world conjured by the film.

Though it doesn't hit the moody, brooding heights of Hillcoat and Cave's last collaboration, The Proposition, Lawless is a gripping, brutal and thrilling crime drama. Anchored by strong performances, a strong, literary script and buoyed by a wonderful sense of place, it's a hugely enjoyable look at history so rarely examined. And if you've ever wanted to see people beat the ever-loving shit out of LaBeouf, it's downright essential.

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