“Lawless” is a film with a predictable plot, lacking real character motivations or logical decision making, and yet I enjoyed it immensely. It was overlong, continuing far past the point of where I cared about the characters, but I can’t say my time was wasted. The film shows how good acting, an intriguing setting and wonderful music can save a movie from bargain-bin crime drama and elevate it to a completely watchable movie. There are scenes in this film that have no real reason to exist beyond advancing the plot, but were so wonderfully executed that I can’t fault the director for including them.
Take, for instance, the foot-washing scene at the Mennonite church. Several scenes before, we were introduced to the forbidden preacher’s daughter, who by the rules of screenwriting was destined to fall in love with the young main character. That was all the exposition we needed for the relationship. The scene in the church didn’t add anything to the film in terms of information or character development—it only reinforced plot points from previous scenes. But I’ll be damned if it wasn’t fun to watch. The entire scene created an overwhelming tension set to the driving beat of an unknown hymn—I loved the look and feel of the church, the congregation keeping strict time with precise arm movements, the overwhelming strangeness of obscure religious ritual. How can any self-respecting editor cut a scene like that?
Unfortunately, the problems outweigh the careful direction and extraordinary performances. “Lawless” could have been a great film. Set in the 1930s during Prohibition, “Lawless” tells the story of three bootlegging brothers, the Bondurant boys, who are said to be immortal by the backwater citizens of Franklin County, Va. There is a war coming between corrupt law enforcement and the complicit citizenry. Prohibition drove the liquor industry underground, paving the way for the criminal element to run wild.
This theme has been explored in better movies, so “Lawless” doesn’t break any new ground. If the Bondurant boys existed as presented in the film, they don’t have many redeeming qualities beyond minor pleasantries like good manners and calm demeanors. They seem to revel in unwarranted violence, having no regard for themselves or other people. We don’t get any insight into their motivations beyond the simple youthful greed of Jake (Shia LaBouef). Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) are men of few words, so they are only revealed through their actions.
By that measure, they are deadly, destructive, without remorse or sympathy for anyone outside their family. They might as well have been sociopaths. The plot is easily guessed and overly simple. The action is violent without having any real cause. Female characters have about as much characterization as the cars in the film, in that they are mostly possessions. Yet somehow, I still enjoyed watching.
The good parts of the film are worth the ticket price. Based on a book by the grandson of one of the characters, the backwater setting is exquisitely detailed and wonderfully done. The actors in the film are all exceptional, creating identifiable and memorable characters. The music, particularly songs like “White Light, White Heat” by the Velvet Underground, were well chosen and enhanced the film greatly. The music alone was more than enough to keep my attention. Add to that a setting that is both familiar and comforting—Franklin County isn’t unlike many places in East Tennessee—and you have a film that appeals to me on an emotional level. Had screenwriter Nick Cave had a stronger grasp his characters, the film may have been an Oscar contender.
There were opportunities here to comment on the clan-like nature of Southern Appalachia, to provide genuine insight into a fascinating culture that was forced to clash with the unrelenting march of social order. Instead, we had a film that glorified violence for the sake of violence, which could have been less graphic without losing any of the film’s purpose.
“Lawless” falls short of excellence, but the performances at least make the film entertaining. And maybe it’s just me, but I would rather watch a bad movie with good acting than a good movie with bad acting.