A good-looking gore-fest directed by John Hillcoat, “Lawless” aims to carve itself a niche in the gangster genre somewhere between “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Untouchables." Set in backwoods Virginia in 1931, the movie concerns a turf war between the bootlegging Bondurant brothers (Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke, and Shia LaBeouf) and a dandyfied, malevolent piece of Chicago muscle named Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce). Guns aren’t the only weapons. Brass knuckles draw blood spurts. Throats are slit with a resounding gurgle.
The basic conflict: Downhome roughnecks, as personified by Hardy’s strong, silent Forrest Bondurant, versus effete city slickers. The Jeffersonian subtext: Yeoman entrepreneurs are good, monopolistic regulation is bad and so is the big town. (As Richard Corliss noted, reviewing “Lawless” when it premiered at Cannes, “Rakes is the kind of citified dude that Forrest might want to kill even if he were a dime-store clerk.” The movie is ambiguous when it comes to the brilliantined Rakes’ sexual proclivities, but the Bondurant word for his kind is “nance.”)
The stoical Bondurants endure many a beating at the hands of the perfumed Rakes and his minions. When will the worm, notably Jack Bondurant, played by LaBeouf with an appealingly goofball desperation, turn? It takes a while, and that feels like a long time to spend in the movie’s company, especially since people who should be dead have a habit of twitching back to life. In this way, as in others, “Lawless” is practically a zombie film. The Bondurants are meant to be the stuff of myth. Their moonshine is the best and so potent they can use it to fuel their jalopies; the brothers, Forrest in particular, are supposed to be unkillable.
Still, the boys are not exactly Robin Hood-style social bandits, and so the movie triangulates: The only alternatives to the Bondurants are the sadistic gangsters and the off-putting members of a local, Mennonite-like sect. In a similar spirit, a pair of fashionable, mildly offbeat actresses — Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska — are on hand to put the Bondurants on the long and winding road to post-prohibition domestication and make them seem more appealing. Didn’t work for me, although Hardy (last seen as the mega-villain Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises”) and Pearce (who, despite his bow-tie and kid gloves, has the face and affect of a snub-nosed revolver) are a well-matched antagonist couple.
Hardy is a memorable hunk of stolid humanity, but it’s the outrageously mannered hambone Pearce who best captures the movie’s spirit. As suggested by the one-word title — as well as those of his previous movies, “The Proposition” and “The Road” — Hillcoat favors the iconic. “The Proposition,” an outback Western that Hillcoat directed from Nick Cave’s script, was as primal, savage, and downright miserablist as all but the greatest of Hollywood’s terminal soap operas. “Lawless” spends too much time showing off.
There’s a lot of posing in spiffy duds, slouchy hats, and clingy shifts. The production design is a thing of beauty, replete with fastidious references to the Walker Evans and FSA photographs of the late '30s; the nouveau hillbilly score orchestrated by Cave, who also wrote the screenplay, contributes to the over aestheticized feel. Looking for a home in Monument Valley, “Lawless” wants to be something larger than life, but it’s too joyless to be a tall tale and too self-satisfied for tragedy.