The prohibition film genre is an interesting one, because it can feature one extreme to the other – violent and bloody or comedic and slapstick. Arguably the best of these is The Untouchables; a fabulous cast, a magnificent script and a terrific depiction of life in 1920s America, save for Sean Connery’s appallingly hilarious attempt at an Irish accent. At the other end of the scale we have films such as Bugsy Malone – an entertaining, fun kid’s film with splurge guns and toe-tapping musical numbers. Lawless falls firmly into the former category. A stellar cast portrays a family of anti-heroes peddling moonshine who battle with a lawman who himself is so corrupt that he is more interested in power via coercion and intimidation rather than upholding the law.
The Bondurant brothers, Forrest (Hardy), Howard (Jason Clark) and Jack (LaBeouf) produce moonshine in Franklin County, Virginia during the height of Prohibition in 1931, aided by their friend Cricket Pate (Dane DeHaan). Jack witnesses a shooting at the hands of notorious gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), who spots him watching but drives away. Forrest hires dancer Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain) to be their new waitress at the petrol station the brothers use as a front for their illegal activities. They are visited shortly afterwards by a new Special Deputy by the name of Charlie Rakes (Pearce), a ruthless cop from Chicago, who informs them that he wants a percentage of the profits they make as bootleggers. Forrest at first refuses, but is forced to back down when his fellow associates fail to help him.
Meanwhile, Jack encounters the daughter of the local preacher, Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska), but he attends church in a drunken state and ends up staggering outside to vomit. Jack then goes to see Cricket, only to find Rakes ransacking the house in an effort to find distillation equipment and shut down their entire operation. Rakes brutally beats up Jack as a message to his two brothers – Forrest tells him that he must learn to stand up for himself. Forrest and Howard arrange to meet a couple of potential customers from Chicago, but Howard gets drunk and doesn’t show. The two men who turn up intimidate Maggie, so Forrest beats them, although they later slash Forrest’s throat and rape Maggie. Once it is learned that they worked for Rakes, the brothers swear a bloody revenge.
As with any film set in a well-known era, there’s always the danger that the plot will slide into cliché and predictability – and that’s exactly what happens in Lawless. The challenge with making the main protagonists anti-heroes is that they need to be likeable, but sadly the Bondurant brothers receive our (limited) empathy purely because their sworn enemy is a classic pantomime villain who makes them look positively angelic by comparison. Prohibition may now look rather pointless and draconian and many cinematic portrayals of bootleggers has been more often than not sympathetic to their plight, but the brothers are nothing more than thugs making money out of people’s desperation and the corruption of the police. Not only this, the screenplay lifts many of the Western genre clichés, complete with shootouts and poor dialogue you would expect to get in a standard John Wayne feature film. There also seems to have been little effort in trying to convincingly recreate 1920s Virginia. A visit to the city is usually made in the dark (very smooth), while most of the action takes place in safe, wooden sets and anonymous countryside – a fine example of lazy filmmaking indeed.
On the acting front, Shia LaBeouf is actually not bad at all, although by his standards, he really is trying hard. For so long one of the most overrated actors in Hollywood, he still doesn’t manage to impress, but at least he doesn’t have Megan Fox (even more overrated in every department) loitering around to make him look good. Tom Hardy is at the centre of everything, even if he mutters a lot of his dialogue, he makes a decent go of his character Forrest, whose name still has connotations of a simpler personality which is at odds with his rugged, macho persona on show here. Guy Pearce, whose snarling Deputy Rakes turns up the caricature knob to eleven, just doesn’t elicit the kind of disgust with his character as he should – being this downright nasty needs to either have a witty line or two (which he doesn’t), or have an air of fear around him at all times (ditto). Pearce is a fine actor, but the script just won’t allow him to go beyond looking ridiculous trying to frown continuously, sans eyebrows. Director John Hillcoat adds nothing special to the proceedings, preferring not to make full use of the landscape, which though perhaps done many times before in similar films, may have at least kept us interested.
The best thing about Lawless is Jessica Chastain’s rack. Besides that there’s lots of mumbling, shooting, beatings and er, more mumblings. It’s entertaining in fits and starts, but look elsewhere if you’re after something daring and original.