Director John Hillcoat (“The Road”) shows us two roosters butting chests in a barnyard early on in “Lawless.” That one shot sums up the movie and could have saved us a lot of time. This Prohibition-era gangster yarn is basically about two kids mixing it up in the schoolyard. The problem is they have guns.
Shia LaBeouf stars as Jack Bondurant, the youngest of three brothers running a bootleg moonshine business in their rural southern community. His older brother, Forrest, played Tom Hardy (“Inception,” “The Dark Knight Rises”), is a local legend, who survived the Spanish Flu outbreak that killed their parents and believes himself unkillable. Their other brother, Howard (Jason Clarke) survived World War I but is a shadow of himself.
Forrest doesn’t think Jack really has the stuff for the business—echoes of Michael Corleone. And when he gets his clock cleaned by the chameleon-like Guy Pearce (“Prometheus”) as Charlie Rakes, a particularly nasty cop, initially Forrest seems to be right. Proving him wrong is what the movie is actually about.
If you follow the logic that the Bondurants have no problem bootlegging but think it’s wrong to pay graft to corrupt cops, then you’ll have no problem here. It’s always been disarmingly easy to root for gangsters in movies, especially when they seem more honest than the cops. The problem here is that the code of honor the gangsters seem to follow seems so arbitrary.
This isn’t “The Untouchables.” The cops don’t want to halt the tide of illegal alcohol, they just want a piece of the action. When Forrest refuses to pay graft, the dandy-like Pearce is all over their operation like a cheap suit. Jack has a series of escalating encounters with Pearce’s corrupt cop and we know this has to go OK Corral sooner or later.
We’re told this story is based on true events, but that’s only half-true itself. Nick Cave’s screenplay is based on the novel by Matt Bondurant about his family. So no matter how closely the movie adheres to the book, there’s a huge question as to how closely the book adheres to history. You have to wonder why Hollywood feels the need to stress that there might be some germ of truth in an otherwise entirely fictional story.
“Lawless” develops what momentum it has slowly, sort of like a train pulling out of the station, and it isn’t always clear at the outset where this train is taking us. This is partly because the viewer may be inclined to expect the fast-rising Hardy to be the star here, where actually he’s a supporting character. LaBeouf is the star here, and he’s retreading a southern-fried version of the plucky adolescent he’s played before.
Clarke is intriguing, although you might suspect a lot of his performance is on the cutting room floor. Dane DeHaan (“Chronicle”) is effective as a likeable co-conspirator who walks with a limp left over from childhood illness, but seems brighter than some of these guys.
The excellent Jessica Chastain, as a big city woman with a past who wants peace and quiet (and somewhat inexplicably falls for the gruff, unshaven Hardy) and Mia Wasikowska (“The Kids Are Alright,” “Albert Nobbs”), as a preacher’s daughter, are both wasted in roles that treat them as trophies.
Gary Oldman fares better as the flamboyant gangster the impressionable Jack wants to emulate. And he actually gets to shoot a Tommy Gun. Unfortunately, he isn’t around enough to up the energy level sufficiently. More would have been more in this case.
The lack of momentum in this movie is actually odd, given the amount of genuinely bloody violence. But there’s a cold, autumnal feeling, accented by Benoit Delhomme’s washed-out cinematography. Some of this is strikingly effective, but there are scenes that more murky than moody. The music is predictably outside-the-box.
Like “Winter’s Bone” and “The Town,” two better recent crime movies, “Lawless” takes place in a culture where crime is taken for granted. That theme is underexplored here.