Lawless (based on the book The Wettest County In The World, an intriguing title which was required by Hollywood Law to be turned into something more generic) is filled with powerful foreign performers given plenty of excuses to show off their verbal tricks. But instead it is Shia LaBeouf, star of the much maligned Transformers franchise and unrepentant tell all, taking center stage in a performance asking him to, ahem, transform from lily liver to bloodthirsty. If the transition is not entirely successful it’s also not totally unsuccessful, and the same could be said of Lawless itself.
LaBeouf’s Jack Bondurant is the runt of a family of three bootlegging brothers in 1931 Franklin County, Virginia. Forrest is the hardboiled bellcow of their moonshine business, rumored by the locals to be invincible, taken to communicating in a low wattage, uneducated, occasionally unintelligible voice that Englishman Tom Hardy works for maximum effect. Combine this with his unorthodox voice work as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises and Hardy is 2012’s King Of Voice Modulation. The third brother, Howard (Australian actor Jason Clarke), is to some degree, sort of the Billy Baldwin of the Bondurant Boys – we don’t see him as much but, hey, he’s there.
Jack kinda loafs along in Forrest’s imposing shadow, wishing not only to live up to his family name but to cut his own path and perhaps, in doing so, woo the requisite Preacher’s Daughter – Bertha Minnix – played sharply by Mia Wasikowska as a subtle rebel, a young lady who in 20 years time would have been sneaking out windows to attend the hopscotch and park it. One of the film’s finer qualities is its little moments of characterization and one of the best is the short scene of Jack “courtin’” Bertha while she sips a soda pop and feigns disinterest. Eventually, Jack grows a pair when he confronts a frightening local mob boss (Englishman Gary Oldman). Henceforth he’s in the money, dressing in snazzy suits and driving a pricey Model T.
Ah, but into every wet county a dry deputy from Chicago must waltz, and so here comes Charlie Rakes, dressed as if he’s going to the Ziegfield Follies on Broadway, an edgy, chatty man of the law with a part in the middle of his hair so fierce it makes you wince when he combs it. He easily could have veered off the rails into caricature of black cape and pointy moustache but the ever-clever Australian Guy Pearce makes him out to be something more akin to Eliot Ness’s psychotic brother the family disowned years ago.
He goes after the brothers with gusto and the brothers give as good as they get, director John Hillcoat relishing in the graphic violence. Except the meaner and more violent LaBeouf’s Jack become, the less convincing is his performance. He’s less a 1930′s Charlie Bronson then a petulant child upset his milk got spilled. In turn, the movie never quite builds to a compelling moment of truth.
The screenwriter of Lawless is Nick Cave, the famed gloom and doom pop singer. This is but his third foray into the world of writing movie scripts and it shows not in a dearth of good ideas or, as stated, enjoyable individual moments, but in the failure to single out one theme or to draw its several themes together in a satisfactory way. What, pray tell, are we to make of Lawless, other than the reams of blood and the mumbles and groans of Tom Hardy? One of its individual moments that works best is a brief monologue from Jack addressing The Great Depression running concurrently with their bootlegging success. He talks of unemployment lines and dust bowls. “But I didn’t see any of it,” he says. Franklin County, as presented, is an insulated place, a land without law where the locals choose to enforce their own brand of justice.
There is a marvelous moment in the midst of the big third-act set piece when the film turns, if only for a second, to pit the whole of Franklin County, good and bad, law-abiding and rule-breaking, against the one outsider, regardless of his badge. It’s an intriguing idea. Instead Lawless is content to just resort to more violence.