Fine acting and an accomplished visual style give John Hillcoat’s Lawless, based on Matt Bondurant’s family memoir The Wettest County in the World, a much-needed boost to a fairly routine period picture about three Prohibition-era brothers running moonshine afoul of corrupt lawmen and heinous gangsters. It successfully depicts a violent world where crime did, for awhile, pay quite well, and where invincible young men courted women of circumstances, but it stumbles by failing to give us characters to care about, even while it looks and sounds great from first frame to last.
Lawless begins 1931 Virginia and charts the rise and fall of a family of men told through the eyes of a naïve Shia LaBeouf as Jack Bondurant, the youngest brother to macho Forest (Tom Hardy) and quieter Howard (Jason Clarke). They are Blue Ridge moonshiners whose business is under fire from new police deputy Rakes (Guy Pearce), who, no surprise, wants in on the take.
Also in town is gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), who announces himself with a massive shooting on Main Street, catching the attention (and awe) of young Jack, who wants to make himself his own man and emerge from his legendary brothers’ shadows.
Lawless is certainly authentic in its violence and doesn’t flinch from throat slashings, close-range shootings, castrations, rape and one terrifying tar-and-feathering. Hillcoat digs into these moments with uncommon grit and force; this is a bold and, at times, barbaric vision.
LaBeouf, an underrated talent in need of a strong publicist, prone to mindless blockbusters and too-candid interviews, delivers a sensitive, intelligent performance as the young Jack, equally believable delicately courting a local lass and minister’s daughter (a winning Mia Wasikowska) as letting his pistol do the talking later in the picture, going mano-a-mano with Rakes in a stunningly shot final confrontation.
Hillcoat (who made the seriously gripping The Road) collaborated with writer Nick Cave on the screenplay, which is part Hollywood period piece, part gritty historical saga and very much an action picture in its sensational final shootout. Bu there’s an arid, routine quality that Lawless never quite overcomes, ultimately registering more as a crafty, flawed genre exercise than a tony, high-minded epic, a movie once thought to have Oscar legs now curiously plopped down in late August multiplex burial ground.
Tom Hardy, the powerful actor whose performance in last year’s Warrior was amongst the years’ best, is the strong, silent type as brass-knuckled Forest (a little too silent for my taste), though he does find time to woo Jessica Chastain, the chameleonic new star who made six pictures last year and, in my book, is the heir apparent to Meryl Streep, here relatively wasted as Forest’s lady in waiting, required to emote (and undress) on cue, pleasant both may be.
While there is much to admire in Lawless, for over half of its running time it’s a detached and slowly paced ride, a movie about great art direction with little to invest in; a narrative stuffily mounted without anyone to care about. But that second half, where tensions come to a head, is damned near gorgeous. The film, well directed if not written, is striking to look at for each of its 115 minutes, even when its human element underwhelms.
2 1/2 stars.