John Hillcoat's Lawless is the latest entry in the gangster movie stable, a Depression-era story of three bootlegging brothers in 1931 Franklin, Virginia. The film is adapted from Matt Bondurant's novel The Wettest County in the World, based on the true story of his grandfather. The story is interesting and mostly well-written by musician (and frequent Hillcoat collaborator) Nick Cave: the three bootlegging Bondurant brothers face off against an evil new deputy come to town with aspirations on their business. The film offers solid performances by pedigreed actors, and it's lushly shot. And yet Lawless remains a trifle, never dipping below the surface into the rich well such a story should provide.
Shia LaBeouf is the youngest Bondurant brother Jack, a hotheaded little showboat making eyes at the local church girl Bertha Minnix (a charming Mia Wasikowska). The film is told from his perspective as he helps his older brothers Howard (Jason Clarke) and Forrest (Tom Hardy) bottle the family recipe, with the help of their sweet little friend Cricket Pate (Chronicle's Dane DeHaan). The hands down weirdest performance in the film belongs to Guy Pearce, playing a cartoonishly villainous deputy named Charlie Rakes, an archetypal evil dandy with Alfalfa hair and a decided absence of eyebrows. Rakes could be part of the reason that Lawless never sticks, as it's nearly impossible to buy this goofy blackguard, and it's even harder to care.
Hardy's great in the film, a grunty, bowlegged behemoth that townspeople have begun to believe is indestructible - a theory given no less weight by his tendency to survive even the most successful-seeming assassination attempts. All of the actors turn in good performances, even if LaBeouf's portraying one of the most irredeemably useless characters in recent memory. Gary Oldman delivers a five minute performance that left me wanting much more. But Jessica Chastain wins the day as Maggie Beauford, the big city girl who escapes to Franklin hoping for a quiet life. Chastain is graceful and moving in the film, the only character about whom I truly cared. Her love for Forrest, her fear for the safety of the Bondurant brothers and dismay at the big city conflict in this little town all resonate in a way that nothing else in the film manages.
The most egregious flaw in Lawless is that the film's atmosphere never feels more than manufactured. The setting of 1931 Franklin feels theatrical in an inauthentic way, a period piece that constantly draws the audience's attention to the set pieces, costumes and affected accents. The film moves forward in the same fabricated manner, with most plot reveals appearing in the form of Jack's peering around a corner and overhearing something crucial.
Lawless has more than good performances going for it, however. The movie has plenty of glorious, often nightmarish violence, a wonderful soundtrack (also by Cave) and some absolutely stunning shots. The movie was filmed in Georgia and the landscape is breathtaking, with towering willow trees and lush greenery. But Lawless' best and most unexpected quality is that it's very, very funny. A film like this feels as if it should be dour and solemn, but Lawless provides plenty of big belly laughs throughout the entire runtime. That's an admirable surprise.
If only Lawless weren't such a superficial endeavor, these parts would add up to a very entertaining whole. As is, the movie is fun while it lasts but forgettable soon after.