Lawless, as its generic title implies, plays out like a direct-to-video crime drama. Ok I won’t mince words. Lawless is a stupefying bore. You’d think any movie concerning gangsters in 1931 would be nothing but nonstop excitement but you’d be wrong in this case. This story is about as distinctive as slice of Wonder Bread. Oops scratch that, Wonder Bread actually has some nutrients you can use.
Forrest, Howard and Jack are the Bondurant Brothers. They’re bootleggers in Franklin County, Virginia and their family is the stuff of local folklore. Eldest brother Forrest has survived the Spanish Flu that took his parents. It’s believed that he can’t die. Indeed Forrest must be part feline because he clearly has 9 lives. He survives a violent throat slashing, being shot multiple times and falling into a frozen lake. It’s pretty ridiculous. Anyway the brothers run a successful moonshine business that ultimately attracts the attention of crooked lawman Charlie Rakes. He demands a cut of their illegal racket. They tell him to get lost and so begins a back and forth game of one-upmanship throughout the rest of the film. In between the occasional bursts of violence we get lots of static shots of landscapes.
The cast is what attracted me to this saga. Ironically it’s the incredible assemblage of talent that makes this drama so frustrating. They aren’t given anything exciting to do. I kept waiting for something riveting to happen. Tom Hardy portrays the oldest (and much larger) brother to Shia LaBeouf’s character. Hardy mumbles and croaks his way through this picture, but he has a presence. Shia is the runt of the family. I guess it’s commendable that he’s attempting to stretch his historical acting muscles as one of the Bondurant brothers, but he’s out of his depth here. They don‘t seem remotely like siblings. Hardy has more charisma in his upper lip that Shia has in his whole body. Guy Pearce stridently overacts as the corrupt special agent. He’s fascinating, so a welcome addition. Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska are fine in underwritten roles as “the girlfriends.“ At least Jessica Chastain looks ravishing amongst all these grimy outlaws. Gary Oldman pops up in a brief cameo as sympathetic criminal Floyd Banner. And then poof he’s gone.
The script attempts to depict these brothers as visionaries. It’s based on a 2008 book called The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant. The production values are gorgeous. It gives the film the look of quality. And the soundtrack is dominated by folksy bluegrass songs the way movies set in the 60s flood the soundtrack with #1 hits of that era. The author was glorifying his grandfather and great-uncles. It’s obvious he wants them to appear as mythic heroes in a Prohibition-era fantasy. But Nick Cave’s screenplay (Yes that Nick Cave, of the Bad Seeds) turns them into rather dull outlaw clichés of the day. Forrest’s girlfriend Maggie rebukes Forrest at one point and says “Ain’t that just like you, to believe your own damn legend.” She sees right through them and so do we. They’re simply a bunch of guys making moonshine during a time when such activities was against the law. This is thoroughly conventional material. I struggled to see why their story deserved a film. These people aren’t legendary. Yes, the period is fertile ground for stories. The script should’ve been a slam dunk in entertainment, but it falters on two counts. Not only does it fail to make these criminals admirable, it can’t even make them seem interesting. Lawless is aimless.