Lawless, a not-so-great movie, is a production designer’s wet dream. Therefore, the first named in this review will be Chris Kennedy, who recreated prohibition-era Appalachia with such precision–the advertising signs, the cars, the wooden structures, the stills–that it was a marvel to take in. I also give great props to costume designer Margot Wilson and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme, who captures some beautiful scenes, such as a dress burning, a fallen man in a snow squall, a country woman hoisting a case of hooch onto her shoulder as if it were a sack of flour, a showdown on a covered bridge, and a naked Jessica Chastain entering a bedroom like a panther.
I don’t give a lot of credit to director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave, because the story of Lawless is overwhelmed by the look of the picture. I was more interested in a tin sign advertising grape soda hanging on the wall of a general store than I was in the goings-on, which concerns a war between a bootlegging family and the corrupt deputy who tries to bring them to justice.
The Bondurant brothers fancy themselves indestructible. Howard (Jason Clarke), who seems to not be playing with a full deck, was the only survivor of a platoon in World War I. Forrest (Tom Hardy), the taciturn ringleader, caught Spanish flu but survived. Younger brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf), the runt of the litter, does not take full part in the enterprise, lacking the toughness of his brothers. He wants to join in, admiring the big-name gangsters like others admire baseball stars.
A federal officer comes to town, and we can tell he’s no-good because he’s perfumed, wears a bow-tie, and has bleached eyebrows. He’s played by Guy Pearce in a very bad performance, though I can’t blame Pearce entirely, because his character is given no place for growth. At least he didn’t have a mustache to twirl. He has brought the other moonshiners in line in a protection racket, but the Bondurants don’t go along.
The problem with this film is that it’s all sizzle and no steak. I just couldn’t get behind the brothers, who are, after all, crooks. Unlike films like The Godfather or Goodfellas, which ask us to empathize with criminals, the Bondurant brothers are just lifeless blobs. I liked Hardy’s technique, but Forrest seems to expend a great deal of energy with every word. Howard is a nonentity, and I guess I never will get the stardom of LaBeouf, who provides nothing here. He gets a subplot involving his romancing of the daughter of a Mennonite preacher (Mia Wasikowska) that is completely dull.
A few other subplots are also underdeveloped. Gary Oldman has a couple of scenes as a famous gangster, but he gives us nothing more than, “Hey, it’s Gary Oldman!” Chastain appears as a woman with a mysterious past who takes a job at the Bondurant’s store, but she’s wasted (aside from the nude scene).
Lawless is based on a true story, so perhaps I just have to accept the instances where, despite the state of emergency medicine in Appalachia in 1931, characters make remarkable recoveries from seemingly fatal wounds. But it comes across as bullshit.
With the talent involved, Lawless is a profound disappointment, but lovely to look at.
My grade for Lawless: C.