John Hillcoat’s ultra-violent bootlegging saga Lawless has about as much resemblance to Prohibition-era Virginia as the bonkers Gangs of New York did to 19th-century Manhattan. Like Scorsese before him, Hillcoat inflates everything in the hope of achieving mythic grandeur, but ends up with little more than a lurid cartoon.
Even before the bloody beatings start, life in Franklin County — known in the ’30s as the “Moonshine Capital of the World” — is awfully colourful. When the narrator, Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf), recalls how liquor stills used to light up the hillside at night, Hillcoat shows us a mountain ablaze with CGI fires, as if there were stills every few feet. Moments later, when Jack recalls the violence in Franklin County, Hillcoat shows us happy little boys playing with the body of a gunned-down gangster, then a drive-by shooting that’s like something out of a Simpson-Bruckheimer movie. Later still, two community dances — one white, one black — are turned into the heartiest, most raucous celebrations you’ve ever seen, and a handful of parishioners singing in a tiny church are made to sound like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Hillcoat is clearly aiming for a larger-than-life fable quality, something like Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, but his staging is too straightforward, too ordinary. You don’t feel in the realm of myth; you feel Hillcoat simply lacks a sense of scale.
Lawless is based on Matt Bondurant’s 2008 novel The Wettest County in the World, a mix of fact and fiction based on the lives of his bootlegger grandfather, Jack, and two great-uncles, Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke). Part of the legend of the Bondurant boys, according to the author, is that they were indestructible, having survived countless ambushes not only by the law, but by their competition in the moonshine trade. Rather predictably, Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave seize upon this bit of lore to justify a non-stop parade of brutality (some of it unleashed upon the Bondurants, some of it retaliation): shootings, knifings, beatings, throat cuttings, castrations, a tar-and-feathering. What’s more, each incident is just a little more gruesome and over-the-top than the last. But hey — these guys are indestructible, they can take it! I didn’t object to the violence — violence has always had its purposes in movies — but I did object to the monotonous use of it. Hillcoat piles on the blood and gore just to keep us alert, to distract us from the dime-thin characters and go-nowhere plotting. (He did the same in his overrated debut film, The Proposition.)
Much of the physical punishment is meted out by one man: Special Deputy Charles Rakes (Guy Pearce), a bully-boy from Chicago sent to clean up Franklin County via any means necessary. The moment we meet him, whatever hopes we had for the movie vanish. He’s the usual prissy sadist: fancy suit, pomaded hair, white gloves, fingers tucked fussily into waistcoat pockets, and — just to up the psychosexual menace — shaved off eyebrows. When he gleefully pummels people, red, sticky blood mars his gloves, and the beatings don’t stop when he returns to his hotel for the night — he orders up prostitutes and pummels them, too. Pearce plays the role for all it’s worth — he’s the only memorable thing in the movie — but the character guarantees we remain at the level of mindless pulp.
The only one onscreen with anything resembling a character arc is LaBeouf’s Jack, who’s the youngest of the three Bondurant boys and goes from hapless runt to valued player in the hooch trade. But his evolution doesn’t register very strongly, partly because the character just isn’t that interesting, and partly because the other two brothers — the people he’s aiming to impress — are puzzlingly underwritten. As Howard, Clarke has almost no dialogue and little to do but act the heavy; he could be written out entirely and nothing would be lost. As Forrest, the godfather of this clan, Tom Hardy has a strong physical presence, but we simply don’t get enough of him, and what we do get is buried under mounds of actor-y affectation. Once again, Hardy tries to create character by setting arbitrary physical challenges for himself: he walks with a bizarre, stiff gait, like he’s got painful haemorrhoids, and he talks in mush-mouthed monosyllables. He’s not as difficult to understand as he was in The Dark Knight Rises, but he comes close. At the film’s mid-point, Forrest barely survives a brutal throat-slashing, and it’s almost a joke when we see him up and around again, a big scar on his neck and more unintelligible than ever.
As for the rest of the cast, they’re wasted. Gary Oldman gets about five minutes of screen time as a local kingpin, and young Dane DeHaan (Chronicle) has to carry out the embarrassing, time-honoured role of the sweet-natured crippled kid destined to die a horrible, revenge-provoking death. As the only two females in sight, Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain get to play virgin and whore archetypes, respectively. It’s not clear why they’re there at all, beyond the fact that movies require women-folk. (At one point, Chastain actually has to deliver the “I won’t watch you die” speech, and you can read the embarrassment on her face in big block letters.)
The movie’s only redeeming elements are the lovely rural locations (in Georgia), the vivid period recreation, and BenoÃ®t Delhomme’s diffused, rust-tinted cinematography. You want to walk around in the environment the movie creates, to be left alone with it. But Hillcoat keeps shoving atrocities in our faces, the mayhem culminating in an oddly perfunctory, terribly staged finale at a police roadblock. It’s hard not be angry with Hillcoat — he’s been given the increasingly rare opportunity to make a large-scale period picture for adults, and he fritters it away with another “extreme” blood-and-guts spectacle. Lawless makes you despair of ever seeing an intelligent American epic again.
Scott MacDonald writes about cinema for Toronto Standard.