Published on October 18th, 2012

By Harrison Forth

Director: John Hillcoat
Writer: Nick Cave, from the novel The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant
Starring: Shai LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska and Gary Oldman.
Length: 116 min.

Set in 1931, during the height of prohibition in America, Lawless tells the tale of the Bondurant brothers who run a successful moonshine business in Franklin County, Virginia. At the centre of the story is the youngest of the Boundurants, Jack (Shia LaBeouf), who hasn’t quite earned the respect and trust of his older brothers: drunkard Howard (Jason Clarke) and brains of the operation Forrest (Tom Hardy).

However, after resisting to cooperate with new Special Deputy Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce), Forrest is suddenly incapacitated, compelling Jack to take matters into his own hands. He cranks up production and manages to enter into business with notorious gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), much to his brothers’ unease.

Rakes’ war perseveres despite the Bondurants’ newfound growth in business, ultimately leading to an inevitable showdown between the law and the lawless.

At the heart of the film is a modest folk tale, based on the true events recorded by ancestor Matt Bondurant in his book The Wettest County in the World. Adapting this historical novel is Aussie musician/writer Nick Cave, who manages to effectively capture the lyricism of the writing and its themes of invincibility and anarchism.

In his third collaboration with Cave, after Ghosts… of the Civil Dead (1988) and The Proposition (2005), Australian director John Hillcoat brings to life this prohibition era action-drama with moderate success. His handling of detail displays an evident fidelity to the events and themes of the time and place; each shot is meticulously styled. However, between erratic bursts of violence and lethargic moments of unanchored narrative, Hillcoat seems uncertain in his commitment to tone and pacing.

While Lawless presents itself as a serious historical drama – we are reminded that it is ‘based on a true story’ from the first frame – moments of implausibility and the cartoonish behaviour of Rakes threaten to disrupt the reception of this appearance. The frequently referenced ‘invincibility’ of the Bondurants may have been the filmmakers’ inspiration behind this heightened sense of realism, but either way the execution feels undeveloped.

On the other hand, Hillcoat manages to elicit some impressive performances within the Lawless ensemble. Leading men Shia LaBeouf and Tom Hardy courageously carry the bulk of the film’s emotion and action – accordingly their relationship with one another and their respective love interests are most interesting. In this regard, Mia Wasikowska, as a preacher’s daughter, and Jessica Chastain, as a bartender, both provide delightful performances despite their underwritten roles. Gary Oldman’s scenes are surprisingly and regrettably sparse – as too are Jason Clarke’s – while Guy Pearce licks up every moment as the film’s oddly groomed, corrupt and irascible villain.

A little more focus and a little less sipping on its own moonshine may have straightened out this occasionally lumpy period drama. Nonetheless, there are enough Tommy guns, charismatic performances and toe-tapping sounds – provided by Cave and frequent collaborator Warren Ellis – to withstand the immediate dismissal of this good ol’ fashioned folk tale.

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