They used to write backwoods ballads about men like the Bondurant brothers, the Virginia moonshiners who built their own little empire during Prohibition. Unfortunately, instead of picking up his guitar and cranking out a tune about them, alt-rocker Nick Cave turned to his word processor and wrote a screenplay.
Although it claims to be “based on a true story,” “Lawless” seems about as authentic as a three-dollar bill, a pastiche of blood-spattered brutality, soggy sibling-rivalry drama and a couple of go-nowhere romances that take up time without adding a whit of excitement.
Cave’s story loses its focus faster than a teenager after a couple swigs of white lightning. At first, “Lawless” seems to be about the sullen Forrest (Tom Hardy), the take-charge brother who oversees the bootlegging business. Forrest has become a living legend in his neighborhood for his ability to cheat death, and Hardy instills the character with mysterious magnetism and meance. But the potentially rich set-up deteriorates quickly when it becomes apparent that we’re going to have to witness the coming-of-age of Jack (Shia LaBeouf), the youngest of the Bondurants, an eager-but-wimpy kid who wants his own piece of the action. Whatever excitement the movie has built up in its first half-hour by focusing on Forrest is squelched by Jack’s cardboard characterization. LaBeouf just can’t measure up to Hardy in any way as an actor: Hardy can express a multitude of meanings through a simple, guttural grunt and a well-timed squint, while you can practically see flashing neon “VACANCY” signs in the slack-jawed LaBeouf’s eyes in his many close-ups.
Rather than illuminate the family history or look into what life was like in rural Franklin County in 1931, “Lawless” piles on even more plots and subplots. Here comes Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a former fan dancer who fled Chicago to hide out as a cook and waitress at the Bondurants’ café/gas station. Meet Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce, giving an almost over-the-top performance that further damages the film’s credibility), a special deputy whose dandified style of dress and painstakingly perfect hair are offset by a dirty mouth and a dirtier mind.
Still don’t have enough to keep track of? Let’s welcome hot-tempered gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) and secretly rebellious preacher’s daughter Bertha (Mia Wasikowska, who is given nothing to do but look shy and curious) to further complicate a tale that’s already on the verge of bursting at the seams. The yawn-worthy “don’t tell daddy” flirtation between Bertha and Jack belongs in another movie — one that no one should have to pay to watch. The middle Bondurant brother, Howard (Jason Clarke), is written off as a boozy, possibly shell-shocked WWI veteran while Banner gets a major build-up, and then abruptly drops out of sight.
Director John Hillcoat gives “Lawless” the same gritty-pretty look of his previous film, “The Road.” There’s a subdued shimmer in the sepia shades and dusty grays that saturate nearly every image, and when violence erupts, Hillcoat doesn’t hold back, presenting a shockingly thorough throat-slashing, a castration and numerous shootings and stabbings. If only “Lawless” put as much detail into its drama. Chastain brings a bit of defiant spirit to Maggie, but the woman remains nothing more than a copy of some stock character Joan Blondell or Glenda Farrell played 75 years ago.
While “Lawless” looks sensational and provides a few meaty scenes for Hardy and Oldman, it’s hard to shake the sense that the essence of this drama was severely watered down somewhere along the way.