There’s plenty of moonshine in the Prohibition-era drama, “Lawless,” but not quite enough to get you drunk on an 80-proof tale about a resilient and resourceful family of bootleggers.
There’s plenty of moonshine in the Prohibition-era drama, “Law less,” but not quite enough to get you drunk on an 80-proof tale about a resilient and resourceful family of bootleggers fighting a ruthless G-Man for the right to process corn the way they see fit. That’s largely because director John Hillcoat is just as adamant about distilling corn the way he sees fit. He pours it on like a bartender look ing to halve the inventory in a single night, exhausting every gangster cliché he can cram into a would-be epic blending hooch, cooch and putsch into a diluted Scorsese mash.
How he got actors the caliber of Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Gary Oldman and Guy Pearce to invest in his operation is almost as big a mystery as why two Australians – Hillcoat and writer Nick Cave –- thought they had the tools to tell a uniquely American story. But you’re glad those estimable actors belly-up because they add life to a harsh tale that’s often too tough to swallow. It’s a historical fact that Matt Bondurant’s family dabbled in the distribution of corn alcohol during the Hoover administration. And it’s equally true that the Virginia authorities frowned upon the state’s most notorious entrepreneurs. But in chronicling the clan’s exploits in his book, “The Wettest County in the World,” Bondurant admittedly fudged details to make his ancestors look more like the Corleones and less like Junior Johnson.
Cave, a troubadour by trade, furthers the incredulities by subscribing to the adage that when it comes to a choice between fact and legend, go with the legend. Thus, we get everything from a character getting his throat sliced – and living to tell about it – to hellacious fights in which the three Bondurant brothers triumph every time, whether the battles be waged with guns, fists or words. It’s almost as outlandish as Hillcoat believing a pipsqueak like Shia LaBeouf could carrythis burly movie as Jack, the youngest of the Bondurants. LaBeouf is game to leave his lightweight past behind, but he can’t help being overmatched by his costars and Cave’s script. Not for a second do you buy Jack’s progression from cowardly whipping boy to liquor kingpin, suave enough to charm the pants off a firebrand preacher’s fetching daughter (Wasikowska), and brash enough to barter with Virginia’s most notorious gangster (Oldman).
That said, it stands as the best performance of LaBeouf’s mediocre career. But for “Lawless” to soar, the “Transformers” star needed to be on a par with a Ryan Gosling or Joseph Gordon-Levitt, both of whom would have made more ideal Jacks. And like his character, it’s as if LaBeouf is always waiting around for his peers to bail him out. Yet there’s only so much Oldman, Wasikowska and Hardy (magnetic as Forrest, the Sonny Corleone of the Bondurant family) can do to prop him up. But it’s just enough to keep you invested in a movie that wildly vacillates between tedium and excitement in chronicling the brothers’ war with a dapper, nihilistic lawman determined to shut them down, even if it means getting a little blood on his spats.
Page 2 of 2 - Pearce is an over-the-top hoot as the almost ridiculously villainous Special Deputy Charlie Rakes, a bend-the-rules copper who usurps the town’s ineffectual, booze-loving constables. But Pearce isn’t nearly as appealing as Hardy (“The Dark Knight Rises”) and Chastain (“The Help”), who provide “Lawless” with its gravitas, not to mention a pinch of compelling romance as Forrest and Maggie. He’s a tough, big-hearted lug; she’s a big-city gal with a checkered past. Together they find a somewhat requisite romance amid all the booze and bloodshed.
Too often, though, they are forced to take a backseat to LaBeouf’s Jack and his overly ripe coming-of-age tropes that culminate with him and his gimpy best pal (a very good Dane Dehaan) concocting the best hooch on the East Coast. It’s a conquest that stirs Rakes into a psychotic frenzy, leading to a preposterous – and overly violent – third act threatening to shoot down the Bondurants as well as the picture. Even then, Hillcoat, taking a step down from his previous flicks, “The Proposition” (also written by Cave) and “The Road,” holds your gaze, aided by evocative 1930s-era sets and costumes resplendently captured by director of photography Benoit Delhomme. Add a terrific bluegrass-tinged score by Cave, and “Lawless” almost ferments into a spirited summer sleeper. But as is, this batch of white lightning could stand a pinch more thunder.
LAWLESS (R for strong bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity.) Cast includes Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Gary Oldman and Guy Pearce. Directed by John Hillcoat. 2.5 stars out of 4.