When a movie has as much going for it as this one, it’s discouraging when it doesn’t deliver on its promise. Yet Lawless pulls the magician’s trick of distraction, offering enough superficial entertainment value—with atmospheric use of locations, charismatic actors, and spurts of shocking violence—to divert attention from its faults. For some people, that may be enough. Others may leave the theater wondering why one of the three principal characters, played by Jason Clarke, is never fully drawn, or why Gary Oldman shows up in two scenes and then disappears. The history of Depression-era moonshiners would seem to provide perfect movie fodder, but this film is content to merely skim the surface.
Lawless is based on the real-life Bondurant brothers, whose story was fictionalized in Matt Bondurant’s best-selling novel The Wettest County in the World, inspired by family lore about his grandfather Jack and his two grand-uncles. Not having read the book, I don’t know if Bondurant asks his readers to swallow the idea of a worldly young woman from Chicago seeking refuge from the big, bad city—in backwoods Virginia. Fortunately, Jessica Chastain gives this improbable character some degree of credibility. Mia Wasikowska is more readily believable as a churchgoing girl who’s lured away from her strict father by a love-struck Shia LaBeouf.
LaBeouf takes over the second half of the film, in fact, stepping out as the most daring and reckless of the Bondurant brothers. But it’s Tom Hardy, as the eldest, who dominates the first, more solid, portion of the narrative. He’s a taciturn sort who, we learn early on, survived a World War I attack in which the rest of his squadron perished. Indeed, he and his brothers are hard to kill, which serves them well when they come up against a slimy, sneering “special deputy” played with brio by Guy Pearce. (By the climax, his cartoonish character destroys any relationship the film may have sought between storytelling and reality.)
Aussie director John Hillcoat has called upon his Proposition collaborator Nick Cave to write the screenplay and provide songs (with Warren Ellis) and a mournful background score. The music is a good fit for the vivid look of the picture, shot by Benoit Delhomme on location in Georgia. But the writing is wildly uneven, fleshing out some characters and leaving others as cyphers.
With so many strong ingredients, including a powerhouse cast, Lawless should have hit the bull’s-eye; instead, it’s a near-miss.