The story of a boy among men is the central idea that John Hillcoat’s Lawless tinkers with. Remove the Prohibition-era setting, the drab attire, and moonshine terminology and you’re left with a practical narrative about how the youngest of three attempts to assert a measure of masculinity. Hillcoat and writer Nick Cave would have been better served to thoroughly acknowledge this thematic element instead of diverting their attention to the many story detours that shape Lawless, as the film suffers from an insufferable level of “plotiness”. Lawless never affords any of its characters the opportunity to branch out their narrative constraints – they’re so poorly drawn into very shaggy plot detours, only moving within the narrative framework for the benefit of whatever the story dictates.
Of the central characters, the most well-defined is the least interesting. Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf) narrates the opening sequence prior to Lawless, indicating that this is indeed his story to tell. But Nick Cave’s script makes no effort to follow on this promise. Instead, we navigate the first act with the growing idea that the story is actually Forrest Bondurant’s (Tom Hardy) to tell. There’s promise in the first act, largely due to Hardy’s immediate presence. But in one of the film’s many lapses of judgment, focus is shifted on and off between various characters with nothing to unite their experiences or build on a potential momentum.
That potential is what makes Lawless such a disappointingly frustrating film. There are many ideas seen throughout the picture that indicates a rich story worth telling. But Cave’s disjointed scripting is compounded by Hillcoat’s ambivalent direction, therein making any glimmer of intrigue demonstrated by Hardy feel like a wasted effort. The talented ensemble is hindered by material that lacks depth and momentum, with Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska left with nothing meaningful to delve into. LaBeouf’s presence is dwarfed by virtually everyone he shares the screen with; making him one of the least interesting leads I’ve seen in quite some time.
Films of this nature rarely strike a chord with me – showcases in male bravado and hyper-violence rarely do. But the crucial difference between Lawless and a film like Killer Joe is that, even as they drip of male wish-fulfillment, there’s a measure of craft on display that projects the images with a sense of purpose. Lawless does not execute on the bravado its characters attempt to project – it is merely mirroring concepts seen in other films without understanding their significance. Without this understanding, Lawless is merely a series of pointless vignettes strung together by ideas that were better executed by other filmmakers.