"It's not violence that sets men apart, it's the distance they're willing to go," Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy) tells his youngest brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf) in "Lawless." And with a set of brass knuckles in his pocket and a pistol in his waistband, he knows what he's talking about. That theme is one that has carried John Hillcoat through his last two pictures "The Proposition" and "The Road," and once again he explores men and their relationship with violence in "Lawless," a picture that, while highly entertaining, doesn't quite match the heights of his previous efforts.
It's 1931, prohibition is good business, and in Franklin County, Virginia the Bondurant boys not only run a successful trade, they are bonafide legends. Forrest himself has an aura of myth surrounding him, and having survived a war and a flu epidemic, he is commonly thought to be, without hyperbole, indestructible. A man of very few words — the aforementioned quote might be the longest sentence he says in the whole movie — his domineering presence, and unwavering commitment never to bend for anyone makes him a force to be reckoned with. "It's a matter of principle," he says. Jack is the runt of the litter, but of the three, he's the one with vision, looking for opportunities to expand their trade outside the county's borders. But he's yet to develop the "distance" required to do so. Meanwhile, Howard (Jason Clarke) is the soldier, whose blunt fists keep everyone who comes into contact with the Bondurants honest. But the brothers are about to be tested by an outsider whose ruthlessness exceeds their own.
Deputy — sorry, special deputy, as he clarifies — Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) has been hired by the county prosecutor to clean up Franklin, which as the former title of the movie revealed, is the wettest county in the world. With the light from the stills in the mountains brightly seen against night sky, the law is going to be coming down hard on the bootleggers — and the Bondurants are on the top of the list. While the brothers — and their loose union with smaller scale bootleggers in the area — have until now enjoyed a courteous relationship with the law mostly coming by the way of greased palms, that is now coming to an end. The dandified Rakes is as brutal as he is impeccably groomed and dressed, and his contempt for the Bondurants, as well as the local enforcement he works with, only fuels the viciousness that he applies to the task at hand. A prostitute sitting and weeping on the corner of his bed, speaks volumes about the cruelty that flows through his veins.
And it's within this milieu of men battling to maintain or gain positions of power — from fists, guns or less delicate methods of persuasion — that "Lawless" truly crackles. Nick Cave manages to streamline the sprawling tale into a narrative that both maintains its epic scope, while moving along at a decent clip. But it's really the three brothers that bring us into this world. Hardy, once again, proves himself to be a versatile actor whose unassuming demeanor only makes what he brings to role all the more surprising and fulfilling. Hardy realizes his physical stature alone can do half the lifting, but that he can also wring some tremendous laughs out of the role as well — ones we'd wager weren't on the written page — is more evidence of his uncanny ability to be pleasantly unpredictable. Clarke mostly fades into the background, but that that's true of Howard, with his brothers assuming he'll always have their back. And he mostly does. But it's Shia LaBeouf who will silence his critics with this film. Finally given more to do than run away from Transformers and yell "OPTIMUS!" he brings a mix of the hopeless romantic, the earnest achiever and loyal brother that is compelling. As the central figure of the three, the movie relies on him and he delivers. As for Pearce? He perfectly, wildly and wickedly bites into the role of Rakes, chews it up, and tastes it thoroughly before spitting it out. He's a firecracker but masterfully knows just where to hold it before it slips into camp. It's a controlled and calculating turn which makes Rakes all the more terrifying.
And the casting in the supporting and smaller roles by Hillcoat also gives "Lawless" a weight and stakes it might otherwise not possess. Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain both shine as the love interests for Jack and Forrest respectively, allowing those characters to have something beyond their business to be fighting for, with the skill of both performers allowing them to be more than just window dressing. Dane DeHaan continues to be a reliable character actor off the bench, and nicely eases into the role of handyman/mixologist and Bondurant buddy, Cricket. And though his role is essentially a cameo, Gary Oldman is solid as the gangster Floyd Banner who operates in same geographical sphere as the Bondurants but knows enough to view them as a common ally in the fight against the growing fist of law enforcement. You need someone to convey they're a feared criminal with no more than a wink, a moustache and some decent threads? Call up Oldman.
And yet for the stack of talent in front of the camera, and how impressive it delivers visually, "Lawless" doesn't quite achieve the lyricism or thematic depth that Hillcoat previously attained. This is partially down to the structure of the film, which employs some clunky voiceover purporting to tell the story through Jack's eyes, but never quite sticking with that notion. But it's mostly due the film's conclusion, which finds Hillcoat and Cave not quite sure of what not they want to end on. As you might expect, "Lawless" — which finds violence coming in Hillcoat's typically unsparing bursts throughout the film — eventually culminates in a grand blowout. But it's almost too easy a way out for a story that until then weighed violence as an unforgiving transaction in an illegal business, not as a sport. And as the movie rolls…and rolls…and rolls…toward the credits, Hillcoat wants to say something about the ephemeral and perhaps misleading nature of myth and legend as it pertains to the Bondurants, but never quite finds the meaning he's looking for. The loose wrap-up of "Lawless" strains too hard to tie things together, when the airiness of an open ending would've commanded more power.
Though it never elevates into anything more than great entertainment, if that's all we get out of "Lawless" it's hard to complain. This is the kind of material studios used to like making, bringing together an interesting story and an excellent collection of talent to tell the tale. We doubt "Lawless" will be gunning for any Oscars, but as far as top-tier storytelling goes, it doesn't get much better than this. [B]