Director John Hillcoat teams up with his The Proposition screenwriter, moonlighting goth-rock kingpin Nick Cave, for Lawless. The Prohibition-era gangster film is adapted from writer Matt Bondurant’s novel based on the exploits of his hell-raising grandpa and uncles in the backwoods of Kentucky. If you’re thinking Boardwalk Empire meets Justified, you’re not too far off.
The story’s anti-heroes are a trio of bootlegging brothers, played by action badass du jour Tom Hardy, character actor Jason Clarke and Hollywood pretty boy Shia LeBeouf. They run moonshine in their county with the full knowledge (and participation) of the law, until two big-timers from Chicago, a gangster (Gary Oldman) and a preening but psychotic lawman (Guy Pearce) decide they want to muscle in on the action. Much bloodshed and family drama ensue.
The film’s main strength is its cast. Hardy, who admirably stepped up to The Dark Knight’s challenge of acting through the Bane mask with only his eyes and body, gives another kind of miniaturist performance here. His emotion-challenged character, who prefers the threat of violence to the real thing, communicates mainly with a monosyllabic grunt whose meaning depends on the context. Oldman is in fine form as always, and Pearce is enjoyably villainous as he chews scenery left and right.
Clarke isn’t given that much to do, and more unfortunately, neither is Jessica Chastain, who turns up as a Chicago gal who goes to work at the brothers’ bar, but has a past connection to Oldman’s gangster. Her back story is tantalizingly teased at, and she’s involved in an important plot twist, but both are left dangling in the wind, presumably to cut the film’s running time (although they did find the time to give her a nude scene). Mia Wasikowska is equally underdeveloped (if more clothed) as a preacher’s daughter and object of LeBeouf’s affections.
As for LeBeouf himself, who seems to be atoning for his Transformers sins by appearing in artier fare (he just signed on for the next Lars von Trier film — good luck with that, little buddy), I thought he was quite good. But then again, I am one of the only people on Earth to have liked Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, so don’t take my word for it.
Cave’s story is appropriately dark, but without giving away any spoilers, he’s getting a bit soft in his advancing age. Hillcoat, for his part, isn’t much of a visual stylist, but he is pretty good at setting up suspense. It’s mainly thanks to his cast, especially Hardy with the restrained rage of his performance, that the film is an entertaining experience. ■
Lawless opens Aug. 31