John Hillcoat’s rustic Prohibition tale, “Lawless,” is beautifully mounted but generally so deliberate and moody that the excitement one expects rarely surfaces. Based on Matt Bondurant’s novel “The Wettest County in the World,” which was loosely fashioned after his family history, it’s set in 1931 in Franklin County, Virginia, where his grandfather and two great-uncles prospered in the moonshine business until they resisted demands from higher-ups to share the spoils, setting off what amounted to a mini-war.
Details of what actually happened are sparse, so Bondurant constructed his book largely from legend and imagination, and screenwriter Nick Cave has added his own helping of the mythic. Of the three Bondurant brothers the eldest, Howard (Jason Clarke), emerges as rather neglected in narrative terms: he’s the muscles of the operation, and often overindulges in the white lightning the family produces. Forrest (Tom Hardy), by contrast, is brooding, laconic and unflappable, and widely thought to be invincible, having survived both the Great War and the deadly flu epidemic; he’s also formidable fighter, a pair of brass knuckles giving him a distinct advantage over opponents. Finally there’s young, callow Jack (Shia LaBeouf), Matt’s grandfather, whom his brothers consider a wet behind the ears and who’s relegated to jobs that don’t require much physical force—or courage.
The Bondurants run an early version of a truck stop, with gas pumps, restaurant—and bar—along with their delivery service of homemade hooch. It’s there that they face down the timorous local lawmen who come to announce the new arrangement that will mean larger percentages of their illegal take for county officials, though the boys’ fellow moonshiners submit to the bigwigs’ demands. So Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce), a ruthless Chicago lawman, is imported to bring them to heel. His methods are brutal, beginning with a nasty pummeling of Jack as an example of his intentions, though it only stiffens the brothers’ resolve. Later he has two thugs slit Forrest’s throat—an act that only adds to his reputation for survival when he’s rumored to have walked all the way to the hospital for treatment despite what should have been a fatal injury. (Later he and Howard take a most gruesome vengeance on the two attackers.)
Forrest also has an unlikely romance with Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain), a classically beautiful young woman fleeing her former life as a dancer in the Windy City. She takes a waitress job at the brothers’ place and before long falls for the virile backwoodsman, a feeling he hesitantly reciprocates. Meanwhile Jack courts Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska), the daughter of the stern patriarch who presides over the town’s puritanical fire-and-brimstone church. As the family business prospers, partially through the mechanical skill of Jack’s crippled pal Cricket (Dane DeHaan), Jack becomes increasingly reckless, flaunting his new-found wealth with fancy clothes and an expensive automobile—which will have serious ramifications and lead to all all-out confrontation with the law.
The picture has plenty of fine qualities. Chris Kennedy’s production design is outstanding; together with Gershon Ginsburg’s art direction, Maria Nay’s set decoration, and Margot Wilson’s costumes, it conveys the Virginia setting and thirties timeframe flawlessly, and Benoit Delhomme’s cinematography does their efforts full justice, bringing the burnished look of timeworn photos to the widescreen images. The score by Cave and Warren Ellis is similarly effective, with some period songs seamlessly woven in. And Hillcoat and editor Dylan Tichenor carefully gauge the tempo, even when the script isn’t perfectly successful in managing transitions and clarifying motives, leaving things opaque.
The performances are also a mixed bag. Hardy makes a strong, stoic protagonist, and though he mumbles a lot, he’s actually intelligible, as he often wasn’t with his face covered by a Darth Vader-like mask in “The Dark Knight Rises.” The elegant Chastain is the sort of Grace Kelly-like, statuesque blonde that Hitchcock would have loved, while Clarke and especially DeHaan deliver sharp turns. Gary Oldman shows up as a famous bootlegger and gives a flamboyant spin to the part, but he’s criminally underused, with only two scenes to his credit. And unfortunately, though he tries very hard, LaBeouf never really convinces as Jack, looking out of both place and time.
It’s Pearce who makes “Lawless” take wing. He’s not around much, and his performance is a frankly outrageous display of poses, smirks, snarls and temper tantrums; with his slicked-back hair and ostentatiously dapper clothes, he could be channeling Dan Duryea. In Pearce’s hands Rakes emerges as a total wacko—a dandified cobra who strikes without warning and has the authority to do so. It’s such a wonderfully flamboyant turn that, set against the somber, serious tone of the rest (including the relatively colorless Bondurants), it becomes a succulently decadent pleasure. As seems appropriate in a movie about criminality, he effortlessly steals the show.
“Lawless” is a nice change of pace even among modern Prohibition tales, which usually focus on urban bootleggers. And Cave and Hillcoat certainly bring a distinctive mood and tone to it. But except for Pearce, it doesn’t deliver the kick one might like.