Director John Hillcoat specializes in stark, emotionally distanced pulp, and if that sounds like a contradiction in terms, often it is. His Australian western The Proposition, about a man murderously stalking his own brother, had a gnarled power, but Hillcoat's accomplished yet flat adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic The Road, and his new bootlegging drama Lawless, suggest that his sensibilities don't quite mesh with his genres of choice. They certainly don't mesh with Hollywood's versions of those genres.
Lawless is, as they say, inspired by a true story. In an otherwise impoverished, Depression-era bckwoods county of Virginia, the Bondurant brothers dominate the local bootlegging business. There are three of them: Forrest, the oldest and head of the clan (Tom Hardy); Howard, wildest and least responsible (Jason Clarke), and Jack (Shia LaBeouf), who likes the money earned by the family business but has little stomach for its violence. Their moonshine franchise has always been an independent operation, but it's become successful enough to draw the kind of flies who want a piece, most notably a "special deputy" named Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce, also in The Proposition and The Road), who's really just a fancy homicidal thug. When the brothers refuse to pay up, bloodshed is inevitable.
Hillcoat isn't about to deliver the pop juice of a piece of "history" like the recent Hatfields & McCoys miniseries. He wants to use the grammar of action entertainment for something more intimate and meaningful, and certainly there's a history of such films, many of them from the 1970s, including Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Thieves Like Us, Malick's Badlands. and Peckinpah's Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. (And more recently, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.) But those films were built on the depth of their characterizations as well as their directors' allegorical visions, and both of those are in short supply in Lawless. Hardy, Clarke and LeBeouf don't look or act like brothers, all of them using discordant fake accents and making odd sartorial choices (Hardy favors comfy sweaters, while LeBeouf keeps his hair in what appears to be the Depression version of a modified Mohawk). They behave as types, not individuals, and none of the actors finds a way to make them interesting. Hardy looks soulful and speaks softly (and that's before he suffers an injury that affects his speech), Clarke, who was terrific on Showtime's Brotherhood, has almost nothing to do, and while Jack is supposed to be callow, callowness is all LeBeouf seems able to play.
The ensemble around them is in worse shape. Jessica Chastain gives a taut, watchful performance, and she's beautifully suited to the period garb she wears here, but her character never makes any sense: a Chicago showgirl who abruptly moves to the back-end of rural Virginia because "it's quiet," and goes to work as a waitress for the Bondurants, predictably leading to an increasing involvement with the brothers in general and Forrest in particular. Guy Pearce plays that mainstay of pulp, the fastidious sadist, who literally wears kid gloves as he performs his atrocities (and who seems to be engaged in a bad hair contest with LeBeouf). Mia Wasikowska is LeBeouf's love interest, another cliche as the preacher's daughter (their particular sect is very into the washing of feet) who's never seen the big bad world before, while Dane DeHaan plays the kind of likable cripple buddy whose fate is foretold from his first moment on screen. Gary Oldman livens the movie up for a couple of scenes when he appears as a friendlier representative of the Chicago mob, but it's not clear what his character is even doing in the movie.
More importantly, there's nothing particularly profound beneath the somber, solemn surface of Lawless. The film has nothing to say about America or Prohibition or even brothers; it's just a plot that mechanically makes its way to the final confrontation between good guys and bad. Lawless isn't awful--Hillcoat can pull off a shootout when he wants to, the photography by Benoit Delhomme is expressive, and there are a few pungently ultra-violent moments--but nothing memorable is on display.
Lawless is being released by The Weinstein Company, and with Harvey Weinstein in charge, it's possible that at one time there was more substance to the film , which was written, like the much better Proposition, by Nick Cave, who's been expanding his non-music career in recent years. The studio has slotted the film in the "older-skewing, slightly serious action" pre-Labor Day slot that provided some support for The Debt and The American in recent years, and there's definitely a feel of post-production effort in the movie's sloppy epilogue, its overly explicit narration and the way songs are spread like jam over the surface of the images, especially in the second half--it would be no surprise if more troubling layers of story had been left on the cutting room floor. What remains, though, isn't enjoyable enough to be worthwhile for cheap thrills, nor enlightening as a portrait of its time, place or characters. Lawless is a shallow pond that only appears to have depth.
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