Lawless was one of those movies that I felt like I should have loved more than I did. Case in point, when I mentioned I’d been to a press screening earlier this week, at least two guy friends were all, “Damn, I wish I could’ve gone with you!” Lawless is a strong “true life is stranger than fiction” drama, peppered with moments of humor but also propelled by a fierce, three-pronged conflict between the bootlegging Bondurant brothers, the authorities who want to tax them for their moonshine, and the Chicago gangsters who are just as likely to do business with them as to cut their throats. (Oh, and someone actually gets his throat cut, and it is gruesome as all get out. They’re good at the gore and the grit.)
While the film as a whole didn’t thrill me as much as I expected to, it’s one of those movies you go to see for the specific performances. Tom Hardy has all the best lines despite talking the least out. Jessica Chastain is radiant as an ex-dancer from the city who tries to escape to Franklin County but finds even more trouble.
And then there’s Shia LaBeouf.
As the youngest Bondurant brother Jack (and the movie’s narrator), he’s set up as the scrappy runt trying to get in on the family business even as his older, more jaded brothers constantly shove him away. Since we witness most of the action and deaths through his eyes, you would assume that you’re meant to sympathize with him. But I think the casting directors may have made a mistake in settling this high-pressure role on Shia’s shoulders.
I can see why they cast him! In many ways, he resembles Jack: He’s loud and boisterous, speaks and acts without thinking about consequences, and comes across as a little vain, in an amusing way. But Shia LaBeouf is also trying to cultivate a “bad boy” image in the media, with crass sound bites and unattractive outbursts. Last year he shot his mouth off bragging that he’d hooked up with Megan Fox on the set of Transformers while she was engaged; while she never confirmed the affair, he was the one who came out looking bad. That same bravado extends to his “process”: He tells journalists that he dropped acid in order to accurately play someone tripping, and he’d be game to have real sex on-camera for his new Lars von Trier project Nymphomaniac. Maybe he thinks he’s being candid and dangerous, but instead he comes across as immature.
And he recognizes how grating his behavior is for his co-stars! When talking about how he showed up to the Lawless set actually drunk, he joked (?) that his on-screen love interest Mia Wasikowska ”was calling her attorney, like ‘Get me the [bleep] out of here.’” And when talking about his acid trip, he admitted, “Sometimes, it does get real. Too real for a [director] who’s trying to keep a diplomatic set.” So why does he keep up with these antics?
When watching Lawless, I could appreciate Tom Hardy’s performance because it was so different from Bane in The Dark Knight Rises – it was a wholly different accent, for one! — and from his own red-carpet persona. Not so with Shia: I resisted rooting for Jack because I’d just spent the last few weeks writing about this kid who seems ungrateful and unprofessional.
I’m not alone in feeling underwhelmed by Shia’s performance: Several other reviewers cited him as an example of the film’s near-miss status. Both he and Lawless never quite attain the greatness they’re gunning for. As Screen Rant points out, he’s entirely competent but ultimately outpaced by much more nuanced performances. Similarly, IndieWire preferred the first half of the film, which was led by Tom Hardy’s muttering, cardigan-wearing character, over the climax that’s caused by Jack’s arrogance.
What’s ironic is that Shia does a fantastic job with all the negative aspects of Jack’s character. To be fair, he does direct the action of the movie, as Jack risks life and limb to sell the Bondurant moonshine to big-city gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman in a great small part). It’s fascinating to witness how he idolizes Floyd; once he has his big payout, he invests in flashy suits, ridiculous hats, and a new car to impress his brothers and Mia Wasikowska’s devout preacher’s daughter. SF Gate puts it really well when they say, “In Jack’s courtship of a religiously devout young woman (Mia Wasikowska), we’re back 80 years ago, even as we see, in Jack’s vanity and in his desire for the trappings of success, the emergence of the modern man.” That vanity is Jack’s undoing, as he gets careless in business deals and accidentally tips off the police.
Established in the first few minutes is the Franklin County urban legend that the Bondurant brothers are invincible. While Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke‘s characters demonstrate that more often, it’s Jack who most believes in their immortal nature. You completely buy his arrogance and selfishness because that’s the persona Shia LaBeouf seems to be crafting on the red carpet and in interviews. But he takes it too far, and when Jack is reduced to a quivering, crying, bloody mess who’s so obviously outmatched, you feel more schadenfreude than sympathy.
Photos: The Weinstein Company