Ostensibly, Lawless is the story of the Bondurant brothers.

With a troubled production and one of the great stupid title changes of 2012 (fuck there are so many of them), the movie that was once The Wettest County and became Lawless was barely on anyone’s radar. A shame, that. Cuz this is a Hillcoat and Cave joint and those have so far been something special. Dirty, bleak, relentless and above all uncompromising = special. Lawless is a movie that feels compromised, perhaps not by meddling suits, but by the choice of how to tell this story. Perhaps Cave was restricted in his adaptation by the real events, but somehow I think that along the line it was felt that the story of Jack Bondurant, wannabe gangster and superweiner, was the right through-line for this movie. That was a mistake.

Truth be told, Lawless is not a bad movie. It’s not even really a disappointed one. Too much of it works for that. Instead, it feels like a missed opportunity. I don’t tend toward reviewing the movie I wanted to see like so many others do, but I the word “compromised” keeps popping into my head. I wish it was a less ephemeral form of compromise; it’s usually so easy to tell what it was that deep-sixed a movie with potential. I’m sure the full story about Lawless will be or is available to those who want to know it. All I get is what I saw and that’s how I have to write.

Shia LaBeouf will win no fans, change no minds, with this role.

I feel a bit bad for LaBeouf. He is one of the most unpopular male actors of his generation among the demographic he is most often sold to. He doesn’t do himself many favors with his antics and shit, but I think he’s a good actor at the end of the day. I don’t know why he’s attracted so much distaste but I do know that playing Jack Bondurant, a pretentious and short-sighted wanker, isn’t going to do him any more favors. It’s sort of like Orlando Bloom’s Paris in Troy. He had his backlash from young men who hated that their girlfriends harbored secret Legolas fetishes. The role of Paris only made matters worse. But Bloom had his Kingdom of Heaven and maybe one day LaBeouf will take a role that doesn’t feel so much like the brand he has accidentally (?) cultivated since Transformers (a movie he single-handedly saves, only to be squeezed out by the sheer Bayhem in the sequels).

Anyways. Lawless takes place in Kansas, where the bootleggers of the hills go about their business fairly painlessly until carpetbaggers start showing up under the aegis of the law to profit off of it. In Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy)’s professional opinion: fuck that. The Bondurants begin a sort of blood feud by refusing to conform and pay the “cost of doing business” handed down by rich men from big cities. The particular rich man, barley seen (which is a mistake) is district attorney Mason Wardell (Tim Tolin). Wardell’s right hand is a deputy named Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce in what may be his daftest role). Rakes is the real villain of the movie and fits into this place by exuding unlikability. Nothing he does or says is enjoyable and one of the potential secret weapons of this movie is in just how much you will likely grow to dislike Rakes. The movie is getting a lot of attention on Pearce’s performance alone. He brings to life what must be one of the most odious and hateable movie villains in memory.

But this is not something that seems to elevate the movie any. Not in the way that a great villain can. Again, the movie seems to miss an opportunity by giving Rakes, in the end a fairly one dimension character in terms of motive and theme, more to do than Gary Oldman. Oldman plays Floyd Banner, a big city gangster who gives the Bondurant operation a little shot in the arm courtesy of the one dumb fucking decision Jack makes which actually turns out okay. Oldman is barely in this movie, but he is instantly classic and intriguing and, in many ways, more interesting than Pearce as Rakes.

You are a nance, Charlie Rakes. Just accept it.

A brutally violent movie, like most of Hillcoat’s, Lawless is nonetheless possessed of a certain wry sense of humor. The laughs in the movie are all pretty honest, coming from the characters and their peculiarities organically. It works but also skews the tone some, leaving the movie unable to find a consistent balance between semi-witty coming-of-age story and dark, violent gangster flick. Part of the problem is just how rote and familiar the Jack story is. He’s a blustery kid who talks big talk but mostly rides the coattails of his older brothers. While Forrest is stern and disapproving, Howard (Jason Clarke who is sadly underused here) is more indulgent. Jack goes through the motions of trying to be too big for his britches, taking stupid risks and talking himself up. When he is finally humbled, it comes at the cost of his friend’s life. Cricket Pate (Dane DeHaan) is the sacrificial lamb and Rakes is the heathen shaman, both circling Jack’s avarice and pride in a ritualistic dance of cause and effect. It sounds more poetic than it is executed.

Jessica Chastain is the rare woman who can make icky cigarettes look schmexy. Also, full frontal nudity in this movie which, well…

Weighed against the posturing and exuberance of Jack’s courting of Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska) is the quiet and ponderous romance of Forrest and Maggie Beauford (Jessica fucking Chastain). Both bits are only saved by the tonal consistency of the performances. These are familiar storylines, but all involved play their parts with total authority. Because I like Hardy and Chastain so damn much, I would much rather have seen more of them. Movie being what it is, I think you could say that equal time is spent on the development of either romance, I just wants more of one as opposed to the other. Bias, ye exist in mine review!

So I’m making this movie sound like it’s maybe super Hollywood. It isn’t. That may be the only sign of studio interference, if it occurred at all. This movie has these conventional narrative and thematic arcs built into it, but then again biographers like to build arcs into the stories of their subjects. The writer of The Wettest County, the source book, is a Bondurant. Why not infuse the story of his forebears with certain folksy, quasi-mythical aspects? Both structurally, the rise and fall narrative for example, and in the text itself with all the jawing about the Bondurant immortality thing.

Tenderness. It’s what hardened, graceful women have to offer to hardened, vulnerable men.

I guess one of the more important things to note about Lawless is that I did like it. I don’t think it’s a stupendous movie and it’s certainly the weakest of the three Cave-Hillcoat collaborations I know of. It’s paced oddly and LaBeouf’s voiceover narration comes over as a rookie mistake, but it has heart and charm and a few laughs in between castrations and almost-decapitations.

But Lawless is not a movie I could ever fault anyone for not liking. Not one I’d spend a significant amount of time arguing the merits of, unless the critiques are outlandish (then it’s a matter of principle, you see). Its pleasures are narrow, its disappointments insistent of themselves, but it has a bunch of people you’d be insane to not like (exception: Shia LaBeouf) in roles that, while not rich, do have full pockets.