With more precision and presence of mind, “Lawless” might have pitched itself as an origin story of the whole gangster-movie genre. But like the transparent moonshine its backwoods brooders guzzle down in just such a way as to remind us it’s fake, the movie itself seems conspicuously diluted, more water than fire.
Sourced from Matt Bondurant’s historical novel “The Wettest County in the World,” and focused on the three Bondurant brothers who ran a bootlegging racket in Virginia’s Franklin County in the early thirties, it’s also a faithful booster of family lore. What story there is here has the brothers protecting their operation, sometimes brutally, from various violent encroachments.
Of course, on account of being portrayed by actors from three different countries, these Bondurants don’t really look or sound related, but they do at least have a common fervor for going to town on their given dialect. Howard, played by the Australian Jason Clarke, is a volatile drunk. Forrest, played by the Brit Tom Hardy, is a fearless WWI survivor, tough and taciturn except when croaking out little speeches to build pre-beat-down suspense. Narrator Jack, played by Shia LaBeouf, is the youngest, dramatized and directly described as “the runt of the litter,” but impressionable and ambitious and at least, in his way, genuinely American.
Given his appearance and his standing here, Jack’s sort of the Wesley Crusher of this enterprise: the innocent contrived conscience we could do without but may eventually agree not to mind. It is therefore somewhat unsettling to discover that, with the exception of Dane DeHaan as Cricket, Jack’s obviously expendable accomplice and pal, LaBeouf actually delivers the movie’s least mannered performance. And this includes Jessica Chastain and Mia Waskiowska, in thankless threatened-damsel parts.
The aforementioned encroachers include Gary Oldman, underused, as a local gangster, and Guy Pearce, overused, as a dandyish Federal deputy. “It’s special deputy,” he insists, and we surmise that he’s the villain of the piece, meant to seem both menacing and amusing. A little laughable but never quite funny, Pearce promptly lapses into his familiar tendency to strive harder than the material warrants. At best, when screwing up his face, he looks like Sigourney Weaver on the prowl for aliens.
This ought to enliven what otherwise just seems like a more rural and less capacious “Boardwalk Empire,” but no such luck. Written by Nick Cave, who with fellow Bad Seed Warren Ellis also presides affectionately over its music, “Lawless” offers possibly too-comfortable turf for director John Hillcoat, who managed other unstable family clans in the pre-civilized wilderness of “The Proposition” (also written by Cave) and the post-civilized one of “The Road” (also scored by Cave and Ellis). As its conflict escalates and a mutual vengeance jones takes the place of any sort of substantively dramatic anticipation, the movie never finds a stance on the violence it portrays. Are we to think it atrocious or awesome? Ah, maybe both, and that’s what makes it interesting, eh? Ah, maybe not.