After working as a child actor on the Disney Channel, being hailed by Steven Spielberg as the next Tom Hanks, and cashing in with mega-hits like Transformers and the latest Indiana Jones installment, Shia LeBeouf seemed destined for really big things. But the young actor, apparently fed up with box-office success and consumer-driven franchises, is now seeking out roles in R-rated dramas packed with sex and violence — the first of which, Lawless, hits theaters Friday. The film is a 1930s period piece that follows a bootlegging Virginia family by telling "the story of a young man" — LeBeouf — "struggling to attain tough-guy credibility in the eyes of his older brothers and the world at large." (Watch the trailer below.) Given LaBeouf's blockbuster past and dramatic ambition, critics are weighing in on whether he succeeds as Lawless' drawling young bootlegger Jack Bondurant — just the sort of "serious" role Shia has been seeking. Is the LaBeouf of Lawless a bold new dramatic talent, or an actor who's way out of his depth?
LaBeouf is Jack Bondurant: It's no surprise that LaBeouf is good in Lawless, says Elizabeth Weitzman at the New York Daily News. Just as the character he plays is trying to convince others that he can handle the pressures of adulthood, LaBeouf "clearly intends for Lawless to signal his own professional maturation." Fortunately, the actor "doesn't disappoint," fulfilling the promise shown in his earlier, non-Transformers movies.
"Movie review: Lawless"
Actually, Shia disappoints: In Lawless, LeBeouf predictably "offers up the same scrappy youngster trying to prove himself he's played before," but adds an "unintelligible twang," says Robert Abele at the Los Angeles Times. It probably doesn't help that LaBeouf is playing the youngest brother of Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke, and that the three men "seem more like actors sharing top billing than actual blood relations." Also unhelpful: This "Depression-era gangster tale" turns "the Virginia hills of the early 1930s into just another backdrop for a clockwork succession of perfunctorily filmed showdowns and shootouts." Ugh.
"Review: Lawless is a bloody, cliched mess"
LaBeouf is fine — but he can't carry the film: LaBeouf embodies the insecure Jack Bondurant "ably enough," says Dana Stevens at Slate. The character "is a closet wuss, less physically prepossessing than his siblings, and loath to so much as slaughter a pig," and that's a familiar shtick that LeBeouf can handle." But keeping the actor on-screen for almost all of the movie's 150 minutes is "just too much LaBeouf." Both the actor and the film would have been better off if Lawless had wandered from Shia to spend more time with some of the other talented actors onscreen.