The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)

September 24, 2012

Lawless, more or less?

By Roger Thomas for the SNAP

Monday, September 24, 2012 — I went into “Lawless” knowing very little about the film other than the fact that it was the story of three brothers running moonshine during the Prohibition era. I did not know that it was based on a true story. That fact, that at least something similar to the plot of the film really happened, intrigued me. Early in the film, the narrator, which is one of the brothers, tells the legend about their family. This legend, which weaves through the film and is supposedly based on historical facts, is the most captivating part of the film.  

But there are other things to like. The film looks good: beautiful early 1920’s cars,  great costumes and art direction. It also sounds good: a fine musical score, and a song, “Midnight Run,” sung by Willie Nelson over the end credits is already getting Oscar buzz.

There are also some fine, though not brilliant, performances. Tom Hardy, who was menacing as Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises,” makes his previous character seem passive compared to his performance as Forrest Bondurant. Shia LaBeouf, who is still trying to make up for three dreadful “Transformer” movies, seems better early in the film as the innocent, weak youngest brother, but is less believable as his character gains confidence on screen. Jason Clarke as the third brother is hardly memorable. He is just there because in history there are three. Jessica Chastain, who continues to do one great performance after another, really needs a breakout opportunity. Lawless will probably not be that film, but she is definitely one of the best things here and she has never looked better on screen. Guy Pearce is nearly perfect as the foe of the brothers, wickedly evil. Finally, two supporting roles were delivered by rising stars that may well be on their way to greatness: Mia Wasikowska and Dane DeHaan.

This film is rated R for violence and some sexual situations. The violence especially comes from the illegal activities of the brothers and those who oppose them.

As I have reflected on the film, I found myself pondering the fact that we often discuss the moral decay of our 21st century society. Everyone wants to place the blame on those who hold different views than their own. I have said many times, the way people sin is always in flux with new ways being invented daily, but I am not sure there is more evil in the world now than there was during the decadence of the Roman Empire or the slavery days in the United States.

Nazi Germany in the thirties and early forties was a place and time of unspeakable evil, but there was also an abundance of evil in the worse confrontations during the civil rights movement in this country. As “Lawless” points out, the years of Prohibition certainly did not create a climate of morality. In the end, those who desire it will find a way to embrace evil legally or illegally, regardless of the time or circumstance.

In my final analysis, “Lawless” is less than many other films in the same genre. In fact, the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire,” which also deals with Prohibition era crimes too, is much more captivating than anything in this film. And it is doubtful “Lawless” will stand the test of time against the great gangster films. The family drama does not come close to the richness of the “Godfather” series. The story does not have the depth of any of Scorsese’s work. There are not even any great lines like one finds in “The Untouchables” such as Malone saying, “They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way!” or Al Capone saying, “You can get further with a kind word and a gun than you can with just a kind word.” Now that is memorable dialogue.  

“Lawless” is worthy of a viewing, but years from now, I doubt this lesser film will be remembered beside the greats.