From its first moments, Lawless lets viewers know they’ll be watching a beautiful-looking film. Set in 1930s Virginia, when Prohibition turned the hills of Franklin County into the bootleg-hooch equivalent of the Fertile Crescent, Lawless is filled with forbidding shadows and verdant abundance, contrasting the indifference of nature with the violence of the humanity within it. It’s a film of kudzu and smoke, blood and grass, roaring engines and chirping crickets. And in the end, that’s a bit more beauty than the material requires. Directed by John Hillcoat (The Road, The Proposition) from a script by Proposition screenwriter Nick Cave, it’s a lyrical, meditative movie stretched over the skeleton of a lurid thriller, a self-consciously high-quality film that’s even better when those bones start to break through.
Adapting the fact-based novel The Wettest County In The World by Matt Bondurant, a descendant of the film’s real-life protagonists, Lawless is packed with details of the bootlegging business as practiced by three members of the Bondurant family, brothers so prone to surviving violence and disease that local legend supposes them to be immortal. They’re led by Tom Hardy, a taciturn slab of a man prone to philosophical observations and strategic bursts of violence. He’s backed by the hotheaded veteran Jason Clarke and youngest brother Shia LaBeouf, who’s determined to play a more active role in his brothers’ business, in spite of Hardy and Clarke’s determination to keep his role confined to the drivers’ seat.
As the film opens, they do brisk business, running a general store and filling station to keep up appearances (even though it does double duty as a road house) as they deliver jars of white lightning and apple brandy to happy customers with the approval of some easily greased country police. That comes to an end, however, when the local authorities decides to take a heftier cut and call in a sadistic, dandified, Chicago-born cop (Guy Pearce) to get the job done. Meanwhile, the brothers take in another Chicago transplant, a weary, glamorous ex-dancer played by Jessica Chastain looking for a fresh start as a waitress, as LaBeouf attempts to court Mia Wasikowska, the daughter of a Mennonite pastor.
At a stately pace, Hillcoat follows the changing fortunes of the brothers, who deal with Pearce’s increasingly violent efforts to shut them down. The film doesn’t skimp on either the violence or the local color; it tours the region’s various subcultures with a particular emphasis on their musical traditions, from the raucous blues of an African-American wake to the reels of a cornhuskers’ frolic to the hymns of Wasikowska’s church. But for all the fussed-over detail and Benoit Delhomme’s stunning cinematography, Lawless really comes to life when the action starts to heat up and its tone locks into Pearce’s colorful, villainous performance. He’s more compelling than any of the heroes in a fine piece of pulp that sometimes trips over its hardcover aspirations.