In an attempt to revitalize the integrity of his career, Shia LaBeouf has recently stated that he is done making blockbusters. Many see this as a snobby, unappreciative remark, but is it really? It is fairly common for working professionals to have stories about having to pay their dues before they experience true success. This makes it an intriguing statement since, according to LaBeouf, his vision is stifled within the studio system. Granted, LaBeouf’s “dues” were mega-blockbuster hits, but those must not have been his idea of success. This statement comes on the heels of some curious and ambitious career choices, including Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac where LaBeouf is rumored to perform an unsimulated sex scene. Still, his first effort in his new “visionary” direction is this summer’s Lawless, which LaBeouf also helped produce. It may not be a great movie, but it’s a strong enough exercise of “life imitates art” to prove LaBeouf’s point.
Lawless is set in Prohibition-era Virginia where the legendary and infamous Bondurant brothers dominate the hillside bootlegging trade. LaBeouf plays the youngest of the three brothers, Jack, who is appropriately performing grunt-work as the driver, while trying to convince his older brother, Forrest, played with stoic minimalism by Tom Hardy, that he can do more. It’s important to note that this is not just another drama about bootlegging. Director, John Hillcoat and writer/musician Nick Cave have taken Matt Bondurant’s source material and created a story about man’s continuous struggle to prove himself in difficult times. Prohibition is an appropriate setting, given its supposed goal of neutering American society’s men who were being deemed too wild. As history has shown, this obviously led to unexpectedly violent results; consider the scene involving a particularly nasty form of revenge as an obvious homage to this “neutering.” This element allows the film to rise slightly above its notable flaws.
As business grows for the brothers, the Bondurants eventually attract the attention of Chicago Special Deputy, Charley Rakes who is depicted with tyrannical evilness by Guy Pearce. What unfolds from here is a nasty, brutal journey through the male psyche where empathy and forgiveness are abandoned for honor and pride. This, understandably, leaves the audience wondering why one must come at the cost of the other, a good question that both Hillcoat and Cave do not entirely address. Benevolence is constantly seen as disadvantageous, feminine, and weak. This masculine insecurity is most strikingly portrayed when one character violently attacks another for being called a ‘nance” or effeminate. Meanwhile, female characters are present, and they work hard at not being dragged down with the men they, for some reason, love.
Unfortunately, Lawless begins with the feel of nothing more than a dramatized history lesson, which it must then work hard to shake. However, it does eventually get its wheels spinning. As strange as this film’s thematic agenda is, we are eventually on board as we are once again in the grips of the classic American cinematic paradox where the heroic outlaws wage war against the power hungry, malevolent authority. Effective turns from supporting roles by Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Mia Wasikowska, and Gary Oldman don’t hurt either. By and large, Lawless scores points for trying to be a little different, as odd as those differences are. B-