The realm of 1930’s Appalachian bootlegging leaps to bloody, boisterous life in John Hillcoat’s Lawless, a merciless tall-tale of a film inspired by Matt Bondurant’s novel, The Wettest County in the World.
If only the film’s performances and characterization were as tantalizing and colorful as its turbulent cinematography and burnished, rough-hewn visual design. For every inspired moment that leaps off the screen and enlivens this dusty epic, there’s a myriad of incongruent and generic details that threaten to unmoor us from the illusion. Chief among them is Shia LaBeouf, trying his best to be Cagney but coming off closer to K.D. Lang on Red Bull.
Hollywood has often delved into the seedy, morally muddled world of prohibition and mob-backed bootlegging for the benefit of juicy, pulpy drama. Initially the uncompromising Hillcoat and his screenwriter Nick Cave seemed like the perfect voyagers into this universe, and they had the right kind of larger-than-life, folksy source material in Bondurant’s historically inspired memoir of his forebearers, the Bondurant brothers. These three are backwood bandits envisioned as a brand of noble, mountain-bred knights fighting against the percieved corruption of Franklin County’s sadistic lawman, Rake (Guy Pearce) with the only weapon they know, the tenacity of stubborn hill-folk. Ok, so maybe there’s also a number of guns, knives, clubs and brass knuckles employed.
If I have painted this unconventional gangster tale as a bit of a wild, hick-filled rumpus than that’s appropriate, because the overstuffed miasma of Hillcoat’s picture feels unrefined and off-the-chain in a good way. Pearce’s oily slick Rake is a delicious and formidable adversary and he unhinges the drama with his commitment to the character’s brutal shadow side, as does Gary Oldman with a very small but hugely entertaining cameo as the mob boss that the Bondurant’s use to undercut Rake’s monopoly on the moonshine business. The dames are all sass and sunshine with Jessica Chastian vamping it up as the gun moll-cum-housekeeper and Mia Wasikowski beaming in earnest as the obligatory preacher’s daughter. When the expected violence and gore begins unfurling at every edge of Benoît Delhomme’s gorgeous cinematography, Lawless starts to perk up and fall apart, simultaneously. The deterioration is down to the one aspect of the production I’ve been skirting around, the Bondurant brothers themselves.
It’s expected with this kind of starkly real but blatantly embellished adventure that reality and historical fact may be rather pliant, and so it’s not surprising to see the brothers treated as mostly good-hearted folk heroes who get shoehorned into the morally upright side of a very violent upheaval. It’s also not surprising that Hillcoat sees them as uncompromising men of action and that the brutality is pushed to a point that’s blatantly cartoonish.
What disappoints is the weakness of the brothers as characters, and the lack of charm or impact in the three central performances. Hardy is mostly a grunting bruiser that occassionally makes Bane seem eloquent, and Australian Jason Clarke isn’t particularly convincing as a rogue although he offers the most baffling versions of the regional dialects. LaBeouf just transports his motor-mouth Witwicky schtick into dowdy period mannerisms and is as convincing as a poodle wearing a slouch hat. None of them seem related and there’s no particular performer that makes the drama sting with the immediacy of the sibling bonds in Hillcoat’s withering The Proposition.
Lawless is by no means a bad movie, but it most certainly isn’t a great one and that’s down to the shallow work of the leads. It works better as a kind of backwoods action flick that throws the clichés and sentimentality we expect into a pot that’s been expertly stirred by talented filmmakers. No matter how tasty the broth is, the meat here is bland and tough. I got caught up enough in the car chases and fisticuffs to admit that I was entertained by the carnival Hillcoat puts on, but I trudged out glum and wondering where my spare change went.