Netflix UK film review: Lawless
Ivan Radford | On 15, Oct 2016
Director: John Hillcoat
Cast: Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke
Watch Lawless online in the UK: Netflix UK / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Google Play / Sky Store
Grrr. Arrgh. We all know Mutant Enemy’s ident. It’s great for 15 seconds at the end of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. But what if someone spoke like that for an entire film? Judging by Lawless, it works surprisingly well.
The “true story” of the Bondurant brothers, small-time Blue Ridge bootleggers during the Prohibition, it’s two hours of guns, growling and the best cardigans this side of Mrs. Doubtfire. But mostly, growling.
“I’m a Bondurant. We don’t lay down for nobody,” says elder brother Forrest (Hardy). What you hear is “raaaawwwrrrghgurgle”. It’s like watching Chewbacca in his old age. If Chewbacca brewed moonshine in a bathtub in the Millennium Falcon’s backyard.
And what of Jar Jar? The closest we have is the excellent Shia LaBeouf as Jack, the earnest younger Bondurant. Desperate to get involved in Chewbacca’s bootlegging as soon as possible, the charismatic chap is as in awe of Forrest’s legend as the rest of the town. So he grabs some bottles, jumps on a landspeeder to Chicago and meets Banner (Oldman), the Jabba the Hut of the 1920s criminal underworld. He has a moustache and carries a tommy gun.
It says a lot about John Hillcoat’s film that you can tell the difference between its characters by the gun they carry. Jack doesn’t have one. Howard, the insane(ly violent) older brother (Clarke), doesn’t need one. And Special Agent Cane (Guy Pearce)? He only holds one while wearing gloves.
A cop trying to muscle in on the Bondurant’s cash, Pearce’s psychofopp is a squeamishly fun villain. He slicks back his hair, polishes his shoes and seems to shave most of the hair of his face. He’s the most violent man you’ve ever seen with no eyebrows.
Cane, it goes without saying, is too outlandish to feel true, but his cartoonish brutality fits right in among Lawless’ cruel, male-driven story. Aspiring to show the birth of modern America in the struggle between outlaws and authorities, the whole thing is predictably riddled with bullets and blood. Hillcoat deserves credit, then, for including a strong woman in Jessica Chastain’s Maggie Beaufort. Maggie’s relationship with Forrest may seem a little tacked on, but the couple play it at just the right contrast to the nastiness around them – climaxing brilliantly when the two worlds coincide one night at the Bondurants’ bar.
That balance is what keeps Nick Cave’s unsubtle script rattling along till the end. Not the balance between the story and history – despite Hillcoat’s ambition, this is no Gangs of New York – but between the actors themselves. And Tom Hardy is right at the heart of it. A menacing presence even when silent, he towers over the rest of the ensemble in his wool cardigan, helping Hillcoat to create a compelling gangster flick.
“It is not the violence that sets men apart. It is the distance he is willing to go,” Hardy grunts near the end. Lawless may be violent, but its cast are willing to go a long way. You just wish they stopped before the uneven finale – a misstep that sees you crying for the end credits to come sooner. With or without the Mutant Enemy logo.
Lawless is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.