Bootleg Bust

The substance of this violent Prohibition drama is too watered down

Bootlegging dramas come with a built-in sympathy clause in their contracts with the audience. “C’mon!” they plead. “All these folks want is to get the government off their backs, follow their American dream and provide liquor to the masses.” And by the way, wasn’t Prohibition a joke?

Yes, and a bloody one, eternally ripe for the movies. Lawless comes from Australian director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave (the musician and writer), adapting loosely Matt Bondurant’s semi-true historical novel The Wettest County in the World, concerning his great-uncles’ exploits in the rural Virginia hooch wars.

This should’ve been a really good picture, especially with Hillcoat’s crack ensemble. Instead it’s a stilted battle waged between the material and the interpreters. It’s up to you, the thirsty customer, to decide who won.

Tom Hardy is the reason to see it, though as a shady Chicago burlesque dancer who falls in with the Bondurant crew, the luminous Jessica Chastain doesn’t hurt. The focal point of the story may be the youngest Bondurant, Jack, played by Shia LaBeouf, but he has a difficult time competing with the more seasoned and attention-grabbing characters. Hardy is Forrest Bondurant, the head of the Franklin County, Va., moonshine operation. With brother Howard (Jason Clarke) acting as the strong-arm, Forrest pays off the local sheriff (Bill Camp) and keeps ruthless competitors (Gary Oldman pops in eventually as a Chicago gangster) at bay as the boys make moonshine while the sun shines.

They’re good family men, just looking out for themselves and willing to do what it takes in the Great Depression to stay afloat. As Forrest utters at one self-conscious point: “It is not the violence that sets a man apart. It’s the distance he’s prepared to go.” Then, to mess it all up, the government arrives, in the persona of a Chicago “special agent” played by an outrageously slimy Guy Pearce.

Lawless is considerably gory and often extreme in its acts of carnage. At the film’s premiere at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, screenwriter Cave described the story as a simple mixture of “sentimentality and brute violence.” An honest assessment. Yet there’s surprisingly little in that mixture, no interesting moral dilemmas beyond bootleggers, good; Guy Pearce, bad. (The antagonist makes the Jude Law weasel in Road to Perdition look like the picture of psychological health.) Shot in Georgia with actors from the U.S., Australia and England, Hillcoat’s film lacks the visual detail and grit it needs to bring these people, this unruly landscape, to life. The romance between LaBeouf’s upstart Jack and the sheltered, pious flower portrayed by Mia Wasikowska feels like a knockoff. Even the roughest standoffs between the Bondurants and their adversaries, no matter how many people are left dead, lack cinematic urgency.

Hardy is so charismatic, though, you may stick with Lawless through thick and thin anyway. (Or as Mel Brooks used to say, “through thin.”) LaBeouf tops the billing and narrates this heavily romanticized tale, but Hardy anchors and dominates the proceedings, with his brass knuckles and amusing bearlike grunts of displeasure or doubt. Each scene is set off on its own, pristinely staged. Even a few more extras milling around, looking for work or ducking the bullets, would’ve helped Lawless, which is very consciously more fable than fully fleshed historical fiction.

Lawless (R) ★★☆☆☆

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