'Lawless': What the Critics Are Saying

 Richard Foreman, Jr., SMPSP/ The Weinstein Company

John Hillcoat’s new movie, Lawless, which is based on a true-story novel The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant and was adapted to the big screen by Nick Cave, opens in theaters on Wednesday, August 29.

With an A-list cast including Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain and Gary Oldman, the film centers on Prohibition-era in Franklin County, Virginia, where a gang is threatened by a new deputy and other authorities who want a cut of their profits.

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Lawless currently holds a score of 64 percent on RottenTomatoes.

Read below for some of the reviews from top critics:

The Hollywood Reporter's David Rooney writes that Lawless is "More commercially accessible, fueled by a brooding sense of dread, visceral bursts of violence, potent atmosphere and some juicy character portraits from a robust cast."

Rooney adds: "If Lawless doesn’t achieve the mythic dimensions of the truly great outlaw and gangster movies, it is a highly entertaining tale set in a vivid milieu, told with style and populated by a terrific ensemble. For those of us who are suckers for blood-soaked American crime sagas from that era, those merits will be plenty."

Robert Abele from Los Angeles Times calls the movie "A bloody, cliched mess," adding "Unfortunately, his latest [director Hillcoat], the Depression-era gangster tale Lawless, turns the Virginia hills of the early 1930s into just another backdrop for a clockwork succession of perfunctorily filmed showdowns and shootouts."

Abele also says, "For a movie about moonshine, something so imaginatively made, mood-altering and once violently sought-after, it goes down way too blandly."

As for LaBeouf's performance, he writes, "LaBeouf offers up the same scrappy youngster trying to prove himself he's played before, but this time, he speaks with an unintelligible twang. His Jack seems miles away from Clarke's flinty smile and bearish mien."

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The New York Times' A. O. Scott says, “Lawless seems unsure of just how tough it wants to be, bouncing between rollicking backwoods humor and graphic violence, with a dollop of good-old-boys sentimentality thrown in for good measure."

Then, Scott concludes, "There are too many action-movie clichés without enough dramatic purpose, and interesting themes and anecdotes are scattered around without being fully explored. This is weak and cloudy moonshine: it doesn’t burn or intoxicate."

Meanwhile, Claudia Puig from USA Today writes that the movie "Is so stunningly photographed that the blood that spurts early and often in this grisly period piece is extra-vivid red."

As for Hardy's performance, she says, "Hard gives an intensely contained performance as Forrest. He's the brains of the operation, though his most impressive scene is a stomach-churning one in which he gets his throat slit and then tries to hold it closed with his hand."

Puig adds: "Lawless should have not been so lackluster, given the inherent intrigue of the era, the quality of the ensemble cast and director John Hilcoat's mesmerizing last film, The Road. But none of the characters are fully fleshed. This standard tale of well-meaning country folks forced into illegal business by the Depression relies on a simple formula: Backwoods folks equal good and city slickers are bad. Nuance and moral complexity are glaringly absent. And the various Southern accents get switched on and off distractingly," and concludes, "The unflinching slicing and dicing is viscerally brutal, but without sufficient character development Lawless simply feels lifeless."

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NPR's Stephanie Zacharek writes that "Lawless, which tells the almost-true story of a family of moonshiners in Prohibition-era Virginia, is both too obvious and not direct enough, and its shapelessness dilutes its power."

Zacharek adds: "Hillcoat knows what to do with grim material: His adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road had a surprising buoyancy to it, despite the depressive nature of the story. But Lawless needs a tighter grip on the reins. The picture's brutality is vivid and unapologetic — that's one of its strengths," and she concludes, "Lawless is mostly about men, but a woman brings it to its knees."

Finally, IndieWire's Leonard Maltin points out that "When a movie has as much going for it as this one, it’s discouraging when it doesn’t deliver on its promise. Yet Lawless pulls the magician’s trick of distraction, offering enough superficial entertainment value—with atmospheric use of locations, charismatic actors, and spurts of shocking violence—to divert attention from its faults."

As for LaBeouf and Hardy's portraits in the film, Maltin says, "LaBeouf takes over the second half of the film, in fact, stepping out as the most daring and reckless of the Bondurant brothers. But it’s Tom Hardy, as the eldest, who dominates the first, more solid, portion of the narrative."

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