Eight years ago, director John Hillcoat and artist Nick Cave made a brilliant movie called The Proposition. Set amid a battle between a gang of brothers and the lawman who wants them dead, the movie was every bit a ruthless, unrepentant Western. It was lauded as one of the best films of recent memory, and quickly became a contemporary model for the genre. So it should come as no surprise that Hillcoat and Cave are trying to recapture their magic with Lawless, a film that's fundamentally similar, even if it swapped an Australian twang for the cacophony of Appalachia.
While Lawless is a tough, violent movie, though, it's nowhere near as intense as The Proposition – nor is it as disquieting as The Road, Hillcoat's 2009 haunting adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel. It's a well-made, no-nonsense sort of gangster story. It's hillbilly Goodfellas.
Based on The Wettest County in the World, a historical novel about bootlegging in Franklin County, Va., during the Prohibition era, Lawless follows the three Bondurant boys, who distill, bottle and run moonshine across the region. Forrest (Tom Hardy), the eldest brother and the leader, is a hard-boiled man of few words. When he's not off on a bender, Howard (Jason Clarke) is the family's muscle. And Jack (Shia LaBeouf), the youngest of the bunch, is a pretender to the Bondurant bootlegging throne, a naive dreamer who fashions himself an aspiring gangster. Jack desperately wants in on the action, but Forrest holds him at arm's length from the work – the boy's just not tough enough.
''It is not the violence that sets a man apart,'' Forrest explains. ''It's the distance he's prepared to go.''
And that, in a nutshell, is the Bondurant family philosophy: In Franklin County you fight for control, not order. When a corrupt federal agent, Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), rolls into town looking for protection money, Forrest rejects his offer outright as an affront to that philosophy, making it clear that ''he's prepared to go'' as far as it takes to keep selling moonshine. The conflict that plays out between Rakes and the Bondurants, as a result, is awesomely violent and uncomfortably visceral.
Unfortunately, the showdown between Forrest and Rakes takes a backseat to Jack's less compelling (but occasionally bloody) coming-of-age story. Cave still has an obvious appreciation for the Bondurants – Forrest, especially – but he lacks the chops to shape the characters that surround them into anything more than self-serious tropes. Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska deserve better than their unceremonious relegation to damsels in distress, while Dane DeHaan chews into a sinewy role as Jack's crippled best friend. Even Gary Oldman, who plays a tommy-gun-toting gangster, is a victim of Cave's neglect. Any scene with Hardy's grumbling Forrest or Pearce's sadistic, pomade-polished Rakes is riveting, but that tension burns up soon after they leave the screen.
Hillcoat made his bones on this sort of tough, gritty movie, and thankfully, it shows. Between sweeping shots of backwoods Virginia, he takes a page from Miller's Crossing, using his camera to linger on the people and places caught in the crossfire of the bootlegging war. (The film's score, double-teamed by Cave and Warren Ellis, underscores this.) His Franklin County is a vivid, rollicking place. Unfortunately, though, all that work suggests a richer story than Lawless seems willing to allow. It's got all the pieces in all the right places, but it's got no glue.
That's not to say it's anything but a vivid, enjoyable movie. LaBeouf gets the most out of Jack's flimsy narrative, while Hardy's continues his run of magnificent on-screen works. At its heart, Lawless is a well-made period piece about good-looking people who shoot each other. It tells that story exceptionally well, with exceptional actors, but it can't escape the limitations of its superficial premise. That it's based on true events only underscores the depth it lacks. In any other movie, that would be fine. Coming from the minds behind The Proposition, though, the story of the Bondurant boys could've been so much more. There's a whole world straining to be seen here. Why won't Lawless bother to explore it?