Film Review: Lawless

Moonshiners battle revenuers in 1930s Franklin County, Virginia. Glum, pompous drama marred by stunt casting.

Loosely based on a 2008 novel by Matt Bondurant, Lawless turns a real-life 1930s moonshine war into a feud between a noble backwoods clan and an effete lawman. Lurid and pretentious, the film is notable mostly for Guy Pearce's hammy turn as a perverse "special deputy" and for director John Hillcoat's condescending vision of the Depression-era South. Despite an impressive cast, Lawless will have a tough time making a dent at the box office.

In the 1930s, Franklin County, Virginia was famous for its bootleg alcohol, and in Nick Cave's screenplay no moonshiners were more respected than the Bondurants: Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke), and their little brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf). They sold with impunity to whites, blacks and the local police, using brawn to fight off rivals and bad guys.

Then Special Deputy Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce) arrives, vowing to shut down any bootlegger who won't pay protection money. Forrest refuses to knuckle under, setting the stage for a test of wills. From threats, violence escalates to beatings, rapes, shootings, stabbings and murder.

Romance shows up in the form of Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a showgirl on the run from the Chicago mob who takes a waitress job at the Bondurants' backwoods restaurant and bar. After some needlessly vicious scenes, she ends up melting the stolid Forrest. Jack, meanwhile, chases after Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), the minister's daughter.

In his intermittent narration, Jack touts Forrest's belief that he is invincible. Tom Hardy plays him as a barely communicative block of wood, fearsome enough but weirdly lethargic. Howard is supposed to be a wild card, a veteran suffering from mental problems, although Clarke brings nothing distinctive to the role. Jittery and overwrought, LaBeouf seems to be in another movie entirely.

So does Guy Pearce, who emphasizes his character's sexual confusion in peculiar, offensive ways. Pearce's Rakes throws bizarre, ugly tantrums, letting blind rage propel him through the film. It's hard to tell who is the bigger fool in Lawless: the venal Rakes; Jack, who wastes his loot on clothes and cars; or Forrest, who stands by idly while his livelihood is destroyed.

Director Hillcoat and screenwriter–musician Cave previously collaborated on the punishing Australian western The Proposition. There's the sense here that the filmmakers are just guessing about bootlegging, human relationships and the South, a place evidently populated by stupid, thuggish brutes who kill for the wrong reasons—and the women who love them.

With a cast of film-festival favorites, Cave's NPR-friendly soundtrack, and backing from the Weinstein publicity machine, Lawless will get its share of positive reviews. But any episode of “Breaking Bad” or even “Justified” is more realistic, hard-hitting and frightening than anything that happens here.