Movie Review: “Lawless”

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“Lawless” has been touted in more than one place as a “kickoff” of the 2012 Oscar race, but if it gains any award traction I’ll be shocked. It’s a generally plodding and joyless affair, wasting a cast full of excellent actors and presenting a story that isn’t especially interesting or well-told.

The very violent film, directed by John Hillcoat (“The Road”) is based on a true story, set in 1920s Virginia, about a trio of brothers who got into the moonshine business during Prohibition. The brothers- Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf and Jason Clarke- end up doing battle with both local gangsters and law enforcement, while also finding love with the likes of Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska.

One of those antagonists is a gangster played by Gary Oldman, who is by far the best thing about the film. Strutting around with a Chicago accent, the role is a throwback to that period in the late ’90s where Oldman showed up as the villain in a couple of movies a year, always with a different accent.

Unfortunately, Oldman is only in two scenes, which is a shame since the movie just about dies on screen whenever he’s not on it.

Somewhat less successfully, the main villain is a corrupt, murderous lawman, played by Guy Pearce, who for some reason plays the part as an obvious closeted homosexual. However, his final scene is a sort of homage to the ending of Pearce’s best movie, “L.A. Confidential.”

“Lawless” is based on a nonfiction book called “The Wettest County in The World”- a much, much better title than “Lawless,” I may add- and adapted by musician Nick Cave, of all people. The film’s script is probably its weakest element, as the story is just meandering and inert, and I had a really hard time caring about anything that was happening. The device that at least one of the characters appears to be indestructible and unkillable not only isn’t as interesting as the filmmakers think, but robs the film of gravitas and stakes.

The actors are all fine, although not so well-served by the material. Hardy, clearly enjoying the chance to act again without a huge object blocking most of his face, gives another good strong-silent performance, while LaBeouf and Wasikowska have some sweet romantic moments. It’s also good to see Clarke, an under-appreciated actor who was one of the better things about the now-defunct cop show The Chicago Code.

But ultimately, the movie’s just too boring and lacking in momentum. And with all of the bootlegging references and Cave-curated Western music, I spent most of the running time wishing I was home watching Deadwood or Justified instead.

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