Few actors can ruin a movie as totally as Shia LaBeouf can. His unique combination of arrogance, lack of believability and smarminess should have relegated him to the bit character parts that he started his career with but somehow he’s managed to not only become the star of one the biggest franchises of the last decade but he’s also been featured player in the continuation of one of the most beloved film trilogies in American film history, a sequel to one of the best films of the ‘80s and one of the most successful franchise of the ‘00s. Whatever hidden quality that’s made Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone and Michael Bay decide to feature the thoroughly unconvincing LaBeouf in their films was also noticed by The Proposition director John Hillcoat, who chose LaBeouf to headline his bootlegging drama Lawless. Given the difficulty of making a Depression era family drama in 2012, it’s conceivable that Hillcoat had to cast a known quantity in the lead role to get the film made but after seeing this finished product it’s clear that some compromises shouldn’t be made.
Lawless wouldn’t have been a great film without LaBeouf. It’s tale of three poor Virginian brothers (LaBeouf, Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke) driven to bootlegging consistently feels to safe. The violence never reaches a sustained pitch where it can become exciting and it’s never gruesome enough to be appalling. This ambivalence feels studio mandate to give what should have been a hard R film a wider appeal. Everyone in the film looks too good, with teeth that are straight for people that poor and most of the primaries are too gracefully and uninhibited for people who’ve spent their entire lives doing hard work for little money. Hilllcoat does a disservice to the people he’s trying to depict by giving in to Hollywood aesthetics. This mise en scène shattering softness also infects the story, with a puppy dog romance between LaBeouf and Alice in Wonderland’s Mia Wasikowska consuming an unnecessary share of the film’s running time. Since you can’t believe LaBeouf, you can’t invest his relationships.
The grownups in the cast – Tom Hardy, Guy Pierce, Jessica Chastain and Jason Clarke – try their best to honor the tone of Matt Bondurant’s novel The Wettest County in the World by playing their character with the appropriate amount of opacity and pain but their thankless work is undermined every the film cuts back to LaBeouf and friends as they goof their way through a plotline that seems recycled from a Dukes of Hazard episode. Hardy and Chastain are damn near heartbreaking as a couple of deeply damaged people who go through a slow and smoldering courtship that’s undererved by the mediocre film it’s in. All of their subtle work has no place in movie where LaBeouf trots out the worst movie accent since Don Cheadle’s Basher Tarr.
Like most Leonardo DiCaprio films, the success of any Shia LaBeouf film depends entirely on the filmmaker’s ability to construct a film around the limitations of their leading man. Christopher Nolan was able to make the dazzling Inception around DiCaprio because his supporting cast was strong enough full in the charisma vacuum the surrounds DiCaprio’s performance and because most Nolan’s films are puzzles that the audiences is asked to solve. Hillcoat’s films are more performance driven and regularly examine the limits of familial bonds. In Lawless, LaBeouf’s character has rushed arc where he starts out as the naïve little brother and is supposed to mature into a rough neck that’s able to single-handedly avenge the abuses his family has suffered at the hands of Guy Pierce’s sadistic dandy. Suffices to say, LaBeouf doesn’t pull off badass and his character’s destructive weakness makes one wish that Hardy’s stern patriarch had a bit of Michael Corleone in him.
During an interview on Jeff Goldsmith’s Q&A podcast, Hillcoat said that he wished he had about five more shooting days and had spent more time working with the Arri Alexa digital camera system he used on the film before shooting began. While not as jarring as grainy mess that was the cinematography on Public Enemies, it’s clear from the film’s fuzzy and sometimes TV looking visuals that Hillcoat struggled with the less defined blacks and ultra-sharp clarity of digital filmmaking. While a tight production schedule and unfamiliar technology may have contributed to the film’s overall choppiness and weak visuals, it doesn’t excuse the decision to make what could have been a soulful period piece into a stalled star vehicle. Or Proposition scripter Nick Cave’s disjointed and insincere screenplay.
Nothing is more disappointing than when a talented filmmaker goes for the big money makes a prestige picture instead of a more difficult and idiomatic piece and it’s even worse when said film is hallowed out and sanitized and then saddled with a performer who’s shockingly wrong for the part. Like Gangs of New York and Valkyrie, Lawless will join the junk pile of ambitious failures that were made even worse by inadequate leading men. Hillcoat’s got serious chops and hopefully he’s learned that a bigger budget and an easier time at the marketplace aren’t worth trading away one’s artistic integrity.
Lawless is available now on DVD Blu-ray here.
Mario McKellop has written about film on Examiner for the last three years and can be reached directly at email@example.com