Like a fine batch of corn whiskey, “Lawless” has all the right ingredients for greatness. But just as lack of attention to detail can turn white lightning into lead-ridden poison, “Lawless” overflows with oversights that ultimately neutralize everything it had going for it.
Directed by John Hillcoat (“The Road”) and penned by the versatile Nick Cave (“The Proposition”), “Lawless” tells the rip-roaring tale of the Bondurant brothers and their hooch-slinging ventures in a small mountain town that shifts from idyllic to turbulent when Prohibition opens up the moonshine market. Thanks to Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy, “The Dark Knight Rises”) — the most fearless and fear-inducing of the brothers — the Bondurant boys have Franklin County and its small-time law enforcement wrapped around their bloody fingers. But things change when Chicago-bred Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce, “The King’s Speech”) comes slinking and sneering into town with his disdainful Yankee attitude and a sadistic thirst for violence.
Much of the film’s narrative is occupied by Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf, “Transformers”), the youngest of the revered brothers. Jack can’t bring himself to shoot a pig, let alone participate in some of the business-as-usual horrors of Forrest and middle brother Howard (Jason Clarke, “Public Enemies”) take part in. But after a bloody encounter with Rakes, Jack gets the fire in his eyes and viewers are stuck in a played-out tale of milksop-turned-gangster.
LaBeouf is far from compelling enough to deserve attention. Jack’s courting of a Mennonite priest’s daughter (Mia Wasikowska, “The Kids Are All Right”) is lifeless, and it’s unclear if that’s because of LaBeouf’s lack of onscreen chemistry with Wasikowska or just because it’s yet another of the film’s unnecessary side plots. Meanwhile, the most riveting aspects of “Lawless” remain undercooked. The film is too concerned with Jack, when it really should be focusing on the silent and severe Forrest, a different role for Hardy that he undertakes with magnificent precision.
Jessica Chastain (“Take Shelter”) shines as Maggie, a city girl looking for a quiet life, which she hardly finds after becoming the new bartender at the Bondurant roadhouse. Whether she’s a dancer in Chicago or a bartender in the South, Maggie can’t seem to escape sexual violence, a theme that must be too complex for “Lawless” to bother with. Her backstory is glossed over and she’s reduced to a damsel in bright period dresses (a look that Chastain however, pulls off effortlessly).
Gary Oldman is unfortunately underused as the slick, smooth-talking gangster Floyd Banner, but Oldman has always been a master of making magic with even the slightest amount of screentime. Despite the broad strokes of liquor-loving, throat-punching Howard Bondurant, Clarke similarly brings alluring energy to a mostly derivative character.
Transformed beyond recognition by shaved eyebrows and oily black hair, Pearce gives his most chilling performance to date as Rakes, who doles out the film’s most indelible horror. But the psychology of the character remains unexplored and never explains why he is so dead set on bringing down the Bondurant clan. Rakes becomes just another looming Big Bad who’s all fright and no detail.
The film’s greatest asset is its aesthetics. The lush, rolling landscapes of Virginia are carefully captured by the penetrating eye of cinematographer Benoit Delhomme (“Shanghai”). The stunning scenery and lyrical voice overs evoke a sense of mysticism, amplified by the existence of the Bondurant legend that declares the brothers invincible. The slicing violence isn’t quite as precisely staged, bordering on clumsy at times, and the script whips between lofty epic and near-primal ferocity with little cohesion.
If as much attention had been paid to the writing as to the cinematography (and if LaBeouf had been replaced by someone more on par with the otherwise talent-rich cast), “Lawless” could have been a backcountry “Goodfellas” with some true grit behind it. At times, it looks and feels like the gritty, Coen brothers-esque thriller it wants so desperately to be. But bogged down with too much plot and an oversaturation of LaBeouf screentime, “Lawless” suffers structural deficiency and a tonal identity crisis that makes it look like little Jack Bondurant in a too-big drape cut suit meant for real deal gangsters.