“John Hillcoat’s latest movie is a well-paced and entertaining story of bootlegging in 1931 Virginia, skillfully adapted by Nick Cave from Matt Bondurant’s 2008 novel The Wettest County in the World,” begins Screen‘s Mike Goodridge. “But if the film will boost Hillcoat’s stock as a commercial director, it is lacking in both the poetry that infused The Proposition and The Road and the mythic quality of many other retro ’30s gangster pictures from Bonnie and Clyde to The Untouchables.”
“Lawless is a handsome-looking film, with a reasonably winning lead performance from Shia LaBeouf,” writes the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw. “But it’s basically a smug, empty exercise in macho-sentimental violence in which we are apparently expected to root for the lovable good ol’ boys, as they mumble, shoot, punch and stab. Our heroes manage to ensnare the affections of preposterously exquisite young women, and the final flurry of self-adoring nostalgia is borderline-nauseating.”
Tweets Robert Koehler: “I’m told Harvey took Lawless out of Hillcoat’s hands and re-cut it. Badly.”
Nonetheless, Vulture‘s Kyle Buchanan is quite impressed by Guy Pearce, who “goes full ham” as he “plays an agent who’s trying to bust in on a bootlegging operation run by brothers LaBeouf and [Tom] Hardy (there is a third bootlegging brother, played by Jason Clarke, but he seems to mostly exist to bridge the considerable physical gap between the other two siblings). The movie itself… is basically an elevated take on those rowdy period pieces like Young Guns and The Newton Boys that pull together a cast of hot up-and-coming men and hand them tommy guns and scuffed-up period clothing, and in kind, Pearce takes what could have been a colorless role and fills it with enough bright shades to populate a Crayola box.”
David Rooney, writing for the Hollywood Reporter, is just as taken with “Gary Oldman in a brief but lip-smacking turn as Chicago Mobster Floyd Banner. Adding welcome softer notes are gifted up-and-comer Dane DeHaan as Cricket, a crippled kid whose magic touch produces superior moonshine; Mia Wasikowska as Bertha, a strict preacher’s daughter with a rebellious streak; and Jessica Chastain as Maggie, an emotionally bruised burlesque dancer looking for a quiet life away from the mean city and stumbling instead on a whole other kettle of brutality in the backwoods.”
Lawless “has plenty of gunplay, scowling showdowns and dust-caked setpieces, but little in the way of dynamic filmmaking to imbue those elements with life,” finds indieWIRE‘s Eric Kohn. The Playlist‘s Kevin Jagernauth agrees that Hillcoat’s latest, “while highly entertaining, doesn’t quite match the heights of his previous efforts.”
More from Jeff Bayer (Movies.com, 4.5/5), Robbie Collin (Telegraph, 3/5), Drew McWeeny (HitFix) and Adam Woodward (Little White Lies). For indieWIRE, Anthony Kaufman talks with Hillcoat “about being influenced by Kent State and the work of Sam Peckinpah, playing with classic American genres and why he’s a moralist filmmaker.” At Movieline, Brian Brooks has notes from the press conference.
Updates: “Not directed so much as art directed, this unquestionably handsome film (shot by the French cinematographer Benoît Delhomme) has a habit of placing actors of craggy demeanor in careful groups, as if posing them for a Walker Evans photograph.” Time‘s Richard Corliss: “The scowls look genuine, but the movie is only a simulacrum of Bondurant’s book.”
“Lawless is the most immaculately barbered film in recent memory,” writes Guy Lodge at In Contention before going on about hair and then eventually telling us why:
I’m writing of its cool preoccupation with masculine presentation, how it can inform and sometimes disguise brackets of class and age—evident as much in the ratty shit-colored cardigans worn by Hardy’s stolidly rural moonshine merchant as in the newly acquired tailoring of LaBeouf as Hardy’s younger, more aspirational brother.
Acutely aware of how they look at themselves and how we look at them, the film is, by extension, a tangy exercise in movie-star gazing, the physical differences between its leading men reflecting opposed modes of maleness no less prevalent on today’s Hollywood star ladder than in the earthier climes of Depression-era Franklin County, Virginia, where Lawless spins its allegedly true tale. If that seems an esoteric way to approach an otherwise straightforward story of brothers defending their turf, their honor and their alcohol, that’s because the film’s sparse thriller structure, with its single villain, unconflicted heroes and straightforward series of shootouts, provides an awful lot of room for such subtextual speculation. The right to booze, after all, has been a stereotypical tenet of lad culture for eons; where better than a Prohibition drama, then, for a supposed lads’ film to get a little self-reflexive?
“Hillcoat and Cave’s decision to be very liberal with the bloodletting and throat-cutting—knuckledusters in faces, testicles in jars—doesn’t stop their film from feeling a bit too pretty,” writes Dave Calhoun in Time Out London. What’s more, “the actors are fetishised by Hillcoat, who indulges each of them with big entries and solo moments that are much too adoring.”
Budd Wilkins at the House Next Door: “Lawless wallows unthinkingly in its bloodshed, offering in its defense only the pat, tagline-ready quote: ‘Violence isn’t what separates men. It’s how far you’re willing to go.'”
The LA Weekly‘s Karina Longworth: “‘Why was Jessica Chastain cast in a thankless girlfriend role?’ is a frequent refrain from critics; the better question is, ‘Why bother writing a thankless girlfriend role to begin with?'”
Updates, 5/20: “It was when Guy Pearce showed up as the psychopath, nearly unrecognizable with middle-parted, slicked-back hair and barely visible eyebrows, that I mostly surrendered myself to the gory hokum,” confesses Mike D’Angelo at the AV Club. “He and Hardy, whose Warrior-thick neck juts incongruously from a proto-Cosby sweater, square off as mutually indestructible badasses, with LaBeouf as the wimp in the middle who must prove himself; there’s a brass-knuckle beatdown, a horrifically explicit throat-slitting, a hailfire of bullets, and the hilariously ominous question ‘Have you met Howard?’ Cave’s screenwriting still lags a long way behind his songwriting, but he’s developing a facility for terse period dialogue, and he provides Hillcoat with ample opportunity to indulge in pleasantly ludicrous, testosterone-fueled mayhem.”
David Fear breaks it down for Time Out New York: “The highs: Tom Hardy strong, silent mastermind, which the British actor plays like a wary minotaur; rock star/screenwriter Nick Cave’s American-Gothic take on the gangster film; and the sound track’s old-timey cover of the Velvet Underground’s ‘White Light/White Heat.’ The lows: A seriously miscast Shia LaBeouf as the film’s morally conflicted hero; virtually everything else.”
For the Observer‘s Jason Solomons, “despite its spurts of blood, gangsters and corrupt cops, Lawless never quite succeeds at building convincing portraits of its characters nor its setting.”
“Lawless isn’t a bad Cannes film—it’s a bad Sundance film,” writes Entertainment Weekly‘s Owen Gleiberman.
Updates, 5/26: “While it has received a rather lukewarm if not chilly reception at Cannes,” writes Charles H. Meyer at Cinespect, “Lawless, with its outstanding cast, manages to deliver so many visual pleasures, so many excruciating thrills, so many memorable moments, and such a compelling rural 1920s southern Virginia atmosphere that in the forthright hands of The Weinstein Company it stands a fair chance of holding up well at the box office once it opens stateside on August 31.”
Oliver Lyttelton talks with Pearce for the Playlist.