John Hillcoat’s grimy 2005 Aussie western “The Proposition” marked the rare case of the genre done justice in modern times. His decision to direct “Lawless,” an adaptation of Matt Bondurant’s Prohibition-set novel “The Wettest County in the World,” should provide cause for excitement. Unfortunately, “Lawless” lacks the same darkly energizing spirit that made “The Proposition” such a revelation: It has plenty of gunplay, scowling showdowns and dust-caked setpieces, but little in the way of dynamic filmmaking to imbue those elements with life.
That’s not to say that it lacks the right ingredients. Along with Hillcoat’s track record, the movie also contains a terrific lineup of male leads, with Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke all clearly embracing the opportunity to play moonshine-peddling brothers facing down a team of corrupt cops. Rock star Nick Cave’s screenplay, unlike his impressive one for “The Proposition,” doles out these personalities by relying on blunt clichés, a tendency also extended to the two female characters (Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska) as well as Guy Pearce in the absurd role of a villainous OCD deputy donning white gloves and a slick hairdo intended to accentuate his bad vibes. Instead, Pearce embodies everything wrong with “Lawless” in general: He’s a self-serious cartoon.
That may explain why, despite its star power, “Lawless” was made independently on a relatively low budget. The movie never makes a convincing case for its story, a contained drama about hustling Bondurant brothers Forrest (Hardy), Howard (Clarke) and Jack (LaBeouf), the youngest of the three. With little to no backstory, the brothers arrive on the scene gliding along Jack’s scene-setting voiceover and promptly go about their business.
Settling into a Virginia saloon and cranking out a living with their illegal profession, the brothers’ stakes go up when police show up and demand a cut of the action. For no particular reason other than thuggery, Pearce’s Deputy Charles Rakes pops by to harass the trio and endanger their developing business. Meanwhile, they fall in love — Forrest to a nomadic barmaid (Chastain) and LaBeouf to an underwritten preacher’s daughter (Wasikowska), both of whom essentially serve to provide the movie with damsels in distress so that the bad guys can raise the stakes in the final act.
With its routine story elements, “Lawless” lacks a clear means of emotional engagement, giving no precise reason to care about the brothers or their plight other than their obvious positioning at the narrative’s center. Even quiet exchanges between the brothers, most prominently the pep talks between Forrest and Jack, merely serve to support excessively violent jolts of action (not particularly graphic; even a throat-slashing contains one merciful cutaway). Tensions between the brothers, the police, and other local dealers routinely lead to manly confrontations that explode before starting the cycle over again.
LaBeouf, an actor who showed remarkable talent years ago, brought more vitality to the three “Transformers” movies. Gary Oldman, wasted in a minuscule role as the no-nonsense gangster Jack idolizes, never gets the chance to show why everyone regards his onscreen persona with such fear. He’s simply a placeholder, not unlike the unimaginatively staged bullet-blazing climax, a sequence no more memorable than any erratic, CGI-fueled spectacle full of rapid cuts and murky action.
There’s a good reason to clobber “Lawless” even though, with its competent cinematography and a likable cast, it stumbles more often than it flies off the rails: Everyone in front and behind the camera can do better than this, and so can the genre. A great revisionist western might resurrect the genre’s appeal, but “Lawless” makes the case for a moratorium. The only truly successful ingredient is the bouncy musical accompaniment that underscores several scenes, particularly several covers of the Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat,” which oddly fit the setting better than the uninspired scenario. As a result, the ideal way to enjoy “Lawless” is to avoid the movie and just listen to the soundtrack.
Criticwire grade: C-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? The Weinstein Company will release “Lawless” tomorrow in several cities. Its stars may help it gain some initial box office traction, although a combination of mixed reviews and word of mouth may stymie its potential for long-term returns and award season recognition.
Editor’s note: A version of this review originally ran earlier this year during the Cannes Film Festival.