“Lawless” has every element it needs for telling a crime drama from the Prohibition era. Besides the good historical background well recreated on the screen, we have three criminal brothers, the associates in their moonshine business, the beautiful women attracted to them, a corrupt law official determined to arrest them, a powerful urban crime lord, and, of course, lots of violence. But what is distilled from these ingredients fails to grip my attention although it is entertaining to some degrees despite its narrative flaws.
The movie is based on the historical novel “The Wettest County in the World” written by Matt Bondurant, whose grandfather Jack Bondurant is one of the three brothers in the story. It is 1931, and Jack(Shia LaBeouf), the youngest brother, has assisted his two older brothers, Forrest(Tom Hardy) and Howard(Jason Clarke), although he is not directly involved in their moonshine business in Franklin Country, Virginia. Thanks to the Prohibition, they have earned more money despite higher risk, and they have been doing pretty well while running a gas station/restaurant on the surface. The local police do not care about them a lot because of the bribe and moonshine given to them, and there is always someone to buy their moonshine.
However, their circumstance is abruptly changed when Special Deputy Charlie Rakes(Guy Pearce) comes to their town. He demands the Bondurant brothers and other bootleggers in the town to give him a considerable part of the profit from their illegal business, and he won’t take no for answer. Rakes is essentially a cardboard villain, but Pearce seems to have a fun with the sadistic intensity of his reptilian character. Always appearing with his slick hair and cologne, Rakes is so fanatically fastidious about his appearance and attire that he cares more about his gloves than the guy he has just beaten up.
Forrest, who is the leader of his family, does not give in to Rakes unlike other bootleggers, so the conflict between them is inevitable. Jack, who has always wanted to prove himself to his older brothers since their childhood, finally gets his wish when he attempts a fast deal with the gangsters in the city for himself, But he and his friend Cricket(Dane DaHaan) are reckless and bumbling from the beginning; they forget to fill the fuel tank of their truck before starting off, and they later find themselves in a grave situation because they are not very careful about the dangerous people they deal with.
The story keeps going on its autopilot while introducing the other characters including Maggie(Jessica Chastain) and Bertha(Mia Wasikovska). Maggie is a girl who leaves behind her past life in Chicago for a more peaceful life in this ‘quiet’ town, and she is hired by Forrest as soon as her job interview is over. She quickly becomes an important part in the Bondurant brothers’ front business. and, of course, we soon see Maggie drawn closer to Forrest, although he is your typical gruff macho guy who is not so good at showing affection to a women he likes even when she approaches to him without her clothes during one night.
Meanwhile, Jack’s eyes are fixed on Bertha, the daughter of the stern local minister who does not like Jack because of his and his brothers’ reputation. He is eager to impress her and others, so, after lots of money comes handy to him, he starts wearing expensive clothes and driving a new car around the town. That is not a wise thing to do, and it is also quite unwise of him to take his girlfriend to a hidden workplace, considering that Rakes and others are always looking for the chance to capture Jack and his brothers on the spot.
In the end, many things happen exactly as we predict. We know that 1) something bad will happen to some of the supporting characters(and we know who they will be right from their first appearances), and 2) Jack and his brothers will be furious about that, and 3) there will be a duel of fate outside the town. I know that the heroes of action movies usually manage to survive regardless of how many bullets are flown across the screen, but I could not help but notice that aspect during the showdown sequence in the movie, and it is amazing to see that the characters manage to move a lot without getting shot even though a group of policemen on the opposite position literally shower them with bullets.
The actors do adequate job in their respective parts. Shia LaBeouf is competent though he is relatively weak compared to his co-actors, and he is certainly better than when he was mired in a swamp called “Transformers 3”. Tom Hardy is as imposing as he was in “The Dark Knight Rises”(2012) while not limited by that mask he was wearing in that movie, and Pearce is effectively hateful as a guy you’d love to despise. In contrast, it is a shame that the movie does not utilize well the talented actresses like Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska, who are mostly placed at the fringe of the story.
The movie is directed by John Hilcoat. He previously directed “The Road”(2010), and I admired its impressive bleak atmosphere while recognizing its half-success in the challenging adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel. For this movie, Hilcoat provides a good ambience for the background of his story through excellent production design and cinematography evoking the feelings of that era, and I appreciate that, but the spark is never generated amid its intense elements. On the whole, the movie just tells us that these people are violent, stubborn, brutal, unwise, and ruthless, and we have heard many similar stories before. I just want more.