In 1920s Virginia, the notorious Bondurant brothers bootlegging operation comes under threat from the Chicago mob and the Chicago cops each as deadly as the other.
It's clear what attracted talented Aussie director John Hillcoat and writing partner Nick Cave to this true tale of Prohibition Robin Hoods running hooch from their hardscrabble network in the Appalachian foothills. Three brothers, a sliding scale from surly alpha dog to soft-skinned pup keen to show his mettle, up against the law in an era of indeterminate morality — here is a Stateside sister-piece to The Proposition’s gristly hymn to outlaw siblings. Likewise, as their former film is a Western transported to a fly-plagued Outback, their latest collaboration is a gangster movie shuffled down the supply line to the groves and shacks of hillbilly America. Both are ultra-violent, credibly acted and handsomely shot. Both dally over the notion of the crook as folk-hero. But, where The Proposition was firm in its convictions, Lawless is fidgety and ungainly, a collection of firecracker scenes in search of a compelling story.
Shia LaBeouf plays baby-Bondurant Jack, a likable rowdy with more dreams than brains and almost the protagonist. His journey from whelp to wiseguy nominally frames the movie. Will he make the grade as bootlegger? Or will his older brothers try to keep him clean like a corn-pone Michael Corleone? Gary Oldman gives a brief recap of those pre-Smiley pyrotechnics as city hood Floyd Banner, and a star-struck Jack starts to dress the part, playing the big shot in this pigsty outrider of mob rule.
Hillcoat’s camera is equally impulsive, flitting to other faces, nosing into new plotlines, gravitating to Tom Hardy’s meaty menace as middle-brother Forrest, head of the operation. Conversing through a glossary of irritable grunts, he possesses a brooding, charismatic potential for violence; although we need to overlook the anachronism of (Bane-ready) girder-thick shoulders in Depression-era Virginia. On we go to Jason Clarke’s unreliable, underwritten oldest Bondurant, Howard. He’s World War I shell-shocked, the twitching, woozy product of one too many snifters of the produce. Then token-dame Jessica Chastain grabs some attention as a former showgirl who unfathomably hooks up with Forrest, with few qualms about his eagerness to punch people in the throat.
Like The Proposition, Hillcoat mounts a memorable, colour-throttled image: a wooded hill lit up like a Christmas tree with the glow of illegal stills. On either side of the law, the violence is unsettlingly psychopathic — a Chicago smile is merely hors d’oeuvre for what the Bondurants have in store for those who cross them. It’s a gesture toward moral perplexity — good and bad merely shades of the film’s desaturated texture.
There is a mild flirtation with contemporary relevance in its commentary on recession-era cunning and the corrupt foundations of American corporate life. And an insinuation that the myth the Bondurants peddle alongside their (literally) petrol-strength apple brandy is mostly bunkum. Curating the soundtrack, Cave reinforces this stab of the postmodern by reinterpreting the likes of Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat for banjo and washboard.
Yet, fresh in town is Guy Pearce as prissy, asexual Chicago special agent Charlie Rakes, intent on cleaning up the county. Suggesting an intriguing opposite to the brute, macho Forrest — all acid intellect and bottled cologne — he turns out pantomime fruitcake, a rote, ludicrous villain. And we’re back in movieland.
That’s just it — the filmmakers can’t decide whether to print the well-oiled legend or the coarse-grained truth. Rooting around for something substantive to say about both the Bondurants’ slippery place in history and the rat-a-tat-tat indulgences of the genre, Lawless sells us half-strength moonshine.
An uneven mix of impressively executed, violent clichés about good ol boys defending the American right to flout the law.