Based on the book The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant about his real-life family history of bootlegging (and a far better, less generic title than the film), Lawless is a gangster film with western sensibilities. That makes sense, since writer Nick Cave and director John Hillcoat previously collaborated on The Proposition, one of the twenty-first century’s best westerns. Set during Prohibition in rural Virgina in moonshine country, Lawless eschews the urban corruption of the typical crime film. In fact, Forest Bondurant (Tom Hardy), who leads his family in the moonshining business, rejects the flashy lifestyle of big city gangsters like Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), though that is not a trait inherited by Forrest’s youngest brother, Jack (Shia LaBeouf). While Forrest is content to keep his country lifestyle — he wears the same grey cardigan sweater throughout the film no matter how much money the operation is making — Jack idolizes Banner and spends his share of the profits on luxury. A middle brother, Howard (Jason Clarke), is less developed, but perhaps that’s because he only lives to drink and fight.
A film is usually only as good as its villain, and Guy Pearce‘s Special Agent Charlie Rakes works for the corrupt district attorney and tries to get the Bondurant to cede control of their whiskey stills. Naturally they refuse, but Rakes — who Pearce portrays as a wild-eye danger not like Richard Widmark‘s Tommy Udo in 1947’s Kiss of Death — is the wrong kind of crazy to refuse to play ball with. It’s Pearce’s best role in years and he virtually disappears into it, which is something that unfortunately cannot be said about Oldman’s Banner. Oldman’s part is more minor than expected, and his character could have been played by anyone with a fraction of Oldman’s talent. While Banner does have a memorable scene with a shovel, it’s a disappointment that his character has very little to do with the overall part and ends up disappearing from the narrative without his plotline being resolved.
As a result, the heavy lifting is done by Pearce and Hardy, who has made a startling leap into his role. In particular, Forrest’s growl — as well as a humorous croak he makes at key moments, especially when uncomfortable — is brilliantly subdued. His budding romance with Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a Chicago girl who moves to Franklin County thinking she’ll find the “quiet life” happens completely under the surface.
Yet there’s a lot about Lawless that puts it more on the level of average films like Public Enemies than recent crime masterpieces like Road to Perdition. The film has a plodding pace, with especially slow and surprisingly dialogue-filled scenes between the outbursts of violence. Hillcoat proved he could do slow-paced films before with the sublime The Road, but his slower scenes here are just too damn talky. Part of that problem has to do with casting: as wonderful as Hardy and Pearce are, the film primarily focuses on LaBeouf’s Jack. I’m not sure what directors see in LaBeouf, but he is consistently the weakest part of the cast in any movie he appears in that isn’t a Transformers movie. His character is the most cliche of an otherwise unique take on the crime film. Jack even commits the cardinal sin of gangster films, which is lusting after an unattainable innocent woman (Mia Wasikowska as Bertha, the preacher’s daughter) and attempting to impress her by acting like a big shot. In fact, neither Wasikowska or Chastain’s characters are significantly developed nor are they essential to the film, and it again makes me wonder why crime films consistently fall back on the same stock female characters.
Lawless triumphs with touches like its set design and soundtrack (which includes two wonderful folksy covers of the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat). But after Hillcoat’s last two films Lawless is disappointing. Instead of breaking new ground like he usually does, Hillcoat relies too much on worn gangster film cliches between his clever moments. So while Lawless is an entertaining and even creative crime film, it’s certainly Hillcoat’s most commercial film and thus doesn’t have the “rush out and see” quality of The Proposition or The Road. Even the title change to the generic Lawless highlights that this is a step back creatively for Cave and Hillcoat.
Rating: An entertaining, yet slow-paced crime drama that isn’t director John Hillcoat’s best work (7/10).