LeBeouf fails to convince in 'Lawless'

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Shia LaBeouf and Tom Hardy star in LAWLESS.

Photo Credit: Richard Foreman, Jr. | Photographer

The first trailer for “Lawless” looked like a film way too light and action-packed for director John Hillcoat, who relentlessly punished audiences with his last two films. “The Road” and “The Proposition” are gorgeously photographed, impeccably crafted works of misery and human cruelty. “Lawless” keeps the hard edge that defined Hillcoat’s earlier work while mixing in a healthy dose of fun, making for a work just as effective but far more entertaining than anything Hillcoat has produced before.

Between this film and HBO series “Boardwalk Empire,” Prohibition-era gangsters are making a bit of a comeback in pop culture lately. “Lawless” is set in Franklin County, Virginia, the biggest moonshine producer in the world. The three most proficient bootleggers are the Bondurant brothers: the gruff, notoriously resilient Forrest (Tom Hardy), the young and eager Jack (Shia LaBeouf) and Howard (Jason Clarke). Unfortunately, Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) is after them, and the threat that he poses is not just to their business, but to their lives.

Between this film and “The Dark Knight Rises,” Hardy is really coming into the public eye. His performance as Bane was a highlight of the summer and a perfect prelude to his coiled, monosyllabic work here. Forrest is a man of very few words, and it’s a testament to Hardy’s charm that he’s able to get a laugh with nothing more than a grunt by the end of the film. There’s a myth building around Forrest that he’s immortal after a few close calls, and the way Hardy engages that perception — playing Forrest as a heavily guarded, decisive instrument of destruction — is a blast to watch. Hardy’s scenes with Jessica Chastain, the de-facto mother of the crew, have a tenderness that stands out amongst the bloodshed, and watching her slowly peel away Forrest’s defenses is a lovely showcase for both actors.

Unfortunately, the main character of the film isn’t Forrest, it’s Jack. LeBeouf can be good in the right role, but he’s utterly unconvincing as a hard-ass bootlegger. Jack’s character arc is your basic crime lord origin story, straight out of “The Godfather,” but instead of becoming the king of anything, Jack continually screws up. A strong character grows and changes over the course of his story, but Jack rushes into situations half-cocked and relies on his brothers to cover his back all the way through the film’s climax. Unfortunately, LaBeouf fails to make any of this material particularly interesting, and his best scenes often involve him working with Hardy or Mia Wasikowska, who plays his love interest with a relaxed, alluring confidence.

Also worth mentioning is Pearce’s work as Agent Rakes, the film’s hammy villain. Pearce gives a fascinatingly opaque performance, and all of the different strokes he brings to the character combine to make Rakes seem as alien as possible in the Virginia backdrop. And Rakes is a propulsive element in the film, wreaking havoc across Virginia with reckless abandon. Nick Cave’s script has simple, smart dialogue, and seems to understand the stubborn sense of independence that drives the bootleggers at the film’s center.

Cave also collaborated with Hillcoat on “The Proposition,” and this film has the same hard-jawed, bloodthirsty sensibility. The difference here is the amount of fun Hillcoat has is having with his action. Even when things turn ugly, there’s still a pulpy appeal to every moment of the film. The skilled direction and Hardy’s gruff, fantastic performance combine to make “Lawless” an exciting and worthwhile.