Moonshiners and government revenuers shoot it out in Prohibition-era Virginia in the blood- and whisky-soaked drama Lawless, based on Matt Bondurant’s 2008 novel, The Wettest County in the World. This arty gangster-western hybrid, which had its premiere at Cannes in May, is directed by Australian John Hillcoat (The Proposition, The Road) and written by compatriot poet-musician Nick Cave. It attempts to take local history of the illegal whisky trade and raise it to the level of myth.
Lawless unfolds with a self-conscious gravity, from the rich gold-brown compositions suggestive of Walker Evans’s photographs to the drawling voice-over on the soundtrack to Cave and Warren Ellis’s judiciously anachronistic soundtrack that includes a bluegrass version of Velvet Underground’s White Heat, White Light.
The story focuses on the three Bondurant brothers (Tom Hardy, Jason Clark and Shia LaBeouf), who run a moonshining business out of their combination gas station/diner. Hardy (who was hidden behind a metal muzzle as the villain, Bane, in The Dark Knight Rises), is the laconic, philosophical leader, his bearish bulk hidden here in a grandfatherly cardigan sweater. The husky, baby-faced Hardy (Bronson, Warrior, Inception) is a strong screen presence whose potential until now seems barely to have been tapped. He’s the best thing here as a kind of hillbilly Achilles, who occasionally clears his throat to drawl a hillbilly maxim: “It is not the violence that sets a man apart. It’s the distance he’s prepared to go.”
After surviving the Great War and the Spanish flu, he is rumoured to be immortal. His hard-drinking brother Howard (Clarke) provides the muscle. When a burlesque dancer (Jessica Chastain), on the run from something bad, arrives from Chicago, she installs herself at the restaurant. Chastain can’t not evoke empathy, but, in this tale of manly bonding and brawling, women are prizes to be won or stolen.
A crisis ensues when a special deputy, Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), arrives from Chicago, determined to get the local booze trade under his control. Pearce, who wears grey velvet gloves and parts his hair straight down the middle, looks like a possessed Dagwood. In a case of overreacting, he goes into a homicidal rage at being called a “Nancy.”
Pearce’s performance is so campy and over the top that it tilts the movie from myth to cartoon.
The other unfortunate shift in the film, after the first hour, is that it shifts focus from the enigmatic mountain man, Forrest (Hardy) to the callow Jack (LaBeouf). Given LaBeouf’s track record at the box office, this might make commercial sense but it undermines the gravity Lawless aspires to.
Inspired by an encounter with the ruthless gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman, in a too-brief role), Jack chooses to raise his criminal profile to impress the preacher’s daughter, Bertha (Mia Wasikowska). He goes into business for himself, with his disabled friend, Cricket (Dane DeHaan) doing the distilling duties.
Soon, the pair of them are turning out a thousand jars of moonshine a week. Soon, Jack’s wearing fancy duds, making puppy eyes at Bertha and driving around town in a new roadster (which I half-expected to flip into an Autobot at the first sign of danger). A light-hearted interlude is understandable, but with a cast including Hardy, Oldman, Chastain and Wasikowska, why are we spending so much time with LaBeouf?
Eventually, the plot catches up with the hijinks. Jack’s grandstanding excites the interest of the reptillian Rakes, triggering an increasingly violent tit-for-tat between the illegal moonshiners and the lawless law enforcers. A rape here, a throat-slitting and a castration there, and so it progresses to a climactic shoot-out. Yet the blood never truly freezes or boils here in what feels like a botched brew of hillbilly romp and ultraviolence in the service of a quasi-mythical effect, and the dull thud behind the eyes and queasiness in the stomach last far longer than the movie’s few intoxicating high points.