Australian Director John Hillcoat has made quite a career of portraying families surviving dire threats. His adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's 'The Road' is one of the bleakest films I have ever seen. My favorite Hillcoat film is The Proposition, a riveting western by screenwriter Nick Cave. Cave and Hillcoat collaborate again for their latest feature, the film adaptation of the novel, The Wettest County in the World. Lawless, is the true story of the Bondurant Brothers and their bootlegging business in prohibition era Virginia. Lawless has its moments with a top notch cast, but is not up to par with Hillcoat's previous work. The film is somewhat disjointed, entertaining at times and then flat in stretches. The characters have the same issue, some fully fleshed out while others are caricatures.
Lawless takes place in Franklin County, Virginia during the Great Depression. The Bondurant Brothers - Jack (Shia LaBeouf), Forrest (Tom Hardy), and Howard (Jason Clarke) - are good old boys that make a minor living bootlegging moonshine. Forrest and Howard run the show with a near mythic reputation for being impossible to kill. Jack languishes in his brothers' shadows, waiting for the day when he can prove himself. That time comes when Jack starts selling moonshine to Chicago gangster, Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman). This does not sit well with the crooked lawmen led by Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a narcissistic, glove-wearing psychopath. Rakes means to have a piece of the Bondurant business and will get it by any means necessary. The Bondurant Brothers fight back at each turn until the situation escalates into an all out war. The women they love, Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska, pay a heavy price in the conflict.
Shia LeBeouf is the lead actor and plays his part relatively well. Hardy and Clarke are also good as the one-note older brothers. My issue is with the gangsters and villains. Guy Pearce is a great actor and a veteran of Hillcoat's films. His turn as Rakes starts out promising, but then due to editing, becomes a vaudeville villain. It caught me by surprise. Rakes starts out as a prominent character then vanishes for the middle of the film. When he reappears, he's just the bad guy carrying out the dastardly deeds with a strange flourish. They should have given him a mustache to twirl. This same disappearing act happens with Gary Oldman's character of Floyd Banner. He's in for a few scenes, which are great, and then vanishes. You expect him to have an impact on the story's end, but he's gone like a puff of smoke. Nick Cave is an excellent screenwriter. I'm sure his script had cleaner endings with these characters. Hillcoat editing of these characters really breaks up the fluidity of the story.
Lawless works best outside the violence. There's a lot of comedy and general interaction. LaBeouf's clumsy pursuit of Wasikowska is a high point of the film. Hillcoat does a great job selling the backwoods setting of Virginia. It's not picturesque, but a grainy snapshot of a bygone era. Jessica Chastain isn't given much to do here, but makes the most of her time. Her romance with Hardy's muttering, tough guy persona is a bit more pedantic. We get a peek into her back story, but as with the villains, it's just not followed up. I question again if there were scenes cut with her character.
Lawless is a violent film. Hillcoat's films tend to be gritty and he continues to roll here. I applaud him for not going overboard with the gun play. Most of these gangster films are swimming in bullets and unrealistic action. Lawless plays it up front and bloody. LeBeouf takes a beating that's pretty rough to watch. There isn't a glorification to pain. One of the primary themes, the perceived toughness of the Bondurant Brothers, has a thoughtful reflection in the epilogue. It ended the film on a high note for me. Hillcoat has done better, but Lawless is certainly watchable.