It’s 1930 and the noble experiment of Prohibition has seen the United States ravaged by crime wave unparalleled in modern history. Whilst Tommy Guns echo from city street corners the backwoods brothers Bondurant, Howard (Jason Clarke), Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Jack (Shia Laboeuf) run a lucrative moonshine business in the wilds of Franklin County, Virginia.
These rough sons of the soil form a formidable fraternal trio - hard men save the youngest Jack, an altogether milder mannered individual without his sibling’s predilection for violence. A mystique has come to shroud the elder brothers as resilient, nigh invincible sons a bitches, the dipsomaniacal Howard being sole survivor of his torpedoed troop transport during the Great War and Forrest strong enough of constitution that he recuperated from the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. There’s a fortune to be made in illegal brewing and with political corruption endemic, grasping commonwealth attorney Mason Wardell seeks to impose his will upon the Counties distillers and reap an extortionate share of the illicit hooch profits. The ruggedly independent Bondurants refuse to bend the knee and so set themselves on a collision course with Wardell’s savage enforcer, Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), who has every intention of putting the legend of the brothers invulnerability to the bloody test.
Lawless is flawless in terms of performance, Director John Hillcoat exacting the very best from a formidable cast. From bit player to headliner there’s nary an actorly foot wrong. Surprisingly strong is Laboeuf, having spent the majority of his career to date shouting obnoxiously at green screens typecast as your quintessential bumptious young buck, here he’s relishing the opportunity for artistic atonement the role of meeker sib Jack provides and makes a fine account of himself. Exhibiting some residual characteristics of Bane, Tom Hardy’s imposing physique coupled with some sublimely Southern accented guttural mumbling makes for a characterful turn. Indeed it’s the novelty factor of seeing some frailty and pathos from Laboeuf coupled with Hardy’s monosyllabic muttering which renders Jason Clarke the least memorable of the threesome, his portrayal of drunkard brother Howard a tad too unadorned as to stand out.
Pearce’s Charlie Rakes is fabulous in the villainy stakes and damn near steals the show as the personification of the periods vice and venality. An effete cologne drenched dandy, attired in the finest hoodlum chic, saturnine and bearing a cadaverous complexion he’s utterly disdainful of the mountainy men he’s tasked with bringing to heel. The effeminate gesticulation and cabaret queen mode of speech of this vicious proto-metrosexual/closet homosexual is so antithetical to the weather worn masculinity of the local yokels as to make him a most memorable antagonist. It’s a testament to the skill of Pearce that he strikes a perfect balance between cartoonish flamboyance and snake-eyed menace.
Grade A thesping aside, Hillcoat is nowhere near as unflinching in his deconstruction of golden age American gangsterism when compared to the fearless revisionism brought to bear on Australia’s foundation myth in his preceding period piece The Proposition. Lawless is rather soft lens in contrast. We open with an illustrative vignette of the young Jack unable to kill a hog, his brethren exhibiting no such compunction at the prospect. The tone is set yet for an interesting thematic exploration as to what makes one man capable of acts of extreme violence compared to the trepidation and revulsion of another, yet that which differentiates our more pacifistic Jack from his brothers is never really teased out to full dramatic effect.
It’s as though midway through the flick undergoes some kind of mainstream metamorphosis, becoming an altogether facile narrative in which studly country folk battle the agents of Boss Hog criminal bureaucracy. Any sense of introspection gets lost in ruddy cheeked coming of age nostalgia as Jack begins his courtship of a preacher’s daughter and starts to become upwardly mobile due to greater involvement in the bootlegging business. There’s no meditation upon the requirements of a gentle soul to embrace casual brutality as a means of existence so when Jacks balls finally drop, when the transition from timid soul to hothead avenger transpires it’s altogether anti-climactic.
For a flick that courses with violence and its threat, it’s treatment is rather muddled. The older Bondurant boys engage in a bit of castratory butchery at one point, hacking two men to pieces yet the surface of their sociopathy and desensitisation is not so much as scratched. We’re encouraged to recoil against the violence perpetrated by self-loathing homosexual Rakes yet nothing but empathy is promoted towards our straight shooting hetro bro’s who commit the most brutal slaying in the flick. There’s insufficient audience discomfiture generated towards the actions/personalities of the older Bondurant boys, they’re just more likeable murderers by virtue of screen time.
With Lawless you have the residual traces of a fearless art house indie-flick but it would seem the project's laboured development, beset as it was by funding problems, resulted in brain damage for Hillcoat's baby following its more mainstream rebirth. As an attempt to enter the VIP club of sweeping American crime sagas its suit is too cheap, failing by virtue of budgetary constraints and having sacrificed its edginess and intellect for the sake of mainstream palatability what we’re left with is a bog-standard tit for tat revenge flick, albeit a superbly acted one. Tonally muddled, narratively unchallenging and wasted opportunity to eviscerate the 1930’s gangster mythos though it may be, the raw directorial and thespian talent of Hillcoat & Co. make Lawless an eminently watchable mess nonetheless.