The way I go about choosing which films to see at the cinema is pretty basic, truth be told. I look at the cast, decide if I can stand two hours of the participants without wanting to ram a screw-driver through my head, and go from there.
This is how I arrived at Lawless, a mobster flick set in early 1930's Virginia and apparently based on a true story. Historians among you will not need me to tell you that this means Prohibition, the banning of the sale of alcohol in the United States during that era. Trying to get around this and thus make a stack of cash are the Bonderant brothers, Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia Laboeuf). They rule the Franklin County moonshine trade with the proverbial iron fist, which is both the most memorable thing about the film and one of it's major weaknesses.
Some of the violent events in this film are so grotesque that even the director (John Hillcoat) seems to have balked at the idea of actually showing them and instead resorts to strong implication. The censors might have had their say on that also, to be fair to Hillcoat. Amid the carnage is Jack's coming of age tale and big brother Forrest's struggles to hold on to both his power and his life, while Howard runs riot and provides more than his fair share of the psychopathy on offer. Of which there is lots. Chipping in is Guy Pearce as Charlie Rakes, a corrupt police officer trying to geg in on the financial gain and keep the Bonderants in his pocket. The normally reliable Pearce whips up the mania and hysteria a little too much, especially in the film's heavily sign-posted denouement. From the very first scene I had a reasonable idea of what might happen at the end, and I wasn't wrong.
It's not that Pearce can't play a baddie. His turn as Fernand Mondego in The Count Of Monte Cristo was among the most memorable villainous stints I can recount. It just doesn't quite work here. He seems to be trying to emit the same suave, charming nature of Mondego before surprising you with a shockingly murderous act or some foul piece of torture. But Rakes lacks the humour of Mondego aswell as the propensity for betrayal which made the latter so compelling. Betrayal trails in the wake of revenge, greed and thirst for power in Lawless.
Quite what the makers of this film were thinking when they wasted the time of Gary Oldman I am still struggling to work out. He appears as Floyd Banner, a feared mob leader who seems to have nothing much to do with anything. He does business with the Bonderants and the film hints at his violent nature and his feared reputation without ever really making him a factor in the stories of the main protagonists. Following Tinker-Tailor and The Dark Knight Rises I am wondering whether somebody just wanted to keep Oldman and Hardy together for a while longer. Maybe they just really, really enjoy each other's company.
Love interest for Forrest and Jack is provided by Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain complete with gratuitious nude scene if you like that sort of thing) and Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) respectively. Maggie is a dancer from Chicago who has run away from trouble and found a whole lot more, while Bertha is the daughter of a preacher who is less than excited about Jack's interest in his little girl. Yet these characters are not much more developed than Oldman's and seem to serve only to distract you from what is really going on.
Lawless is a capable but underwhelming mobster story with some heavyweight actors seemingly below their best form. Which is what I get for choosing my cinematic pleasures by looking at cast lists and virtually ignoring synopses.