Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy), leader of the most powerful moonshining family in Franklin County, Virginia, wears the indestructible armor of legend. His parents died in the 1919 flu epidemic; he survived. He took a few bullets in the course of his rough business and thrived throughout a decade and more of Prohibition. One night some thugs slit his throat and, folks marveled, Forrest somehow trudged 12 miles through the snow to the nearest hospital. Much later, when his girlfriend Maggie (Jessica Chastain) tells him that she’d found him unconscious and driven him to the hospital, Forrest is surprised: “I thought I walked.”
“When the legend becomes fact,” says the newspaperman in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “print the legend.” As in the old West, so in Depression-era Franklin — The Wettest County in the World, as Matt Bondurant named his historical novel, published in 2008, about the Virginia moonshine wars involving his great-uncles Forrest and Howard and his grandfather Jack. For his bloody and most entertaining book, Bondurant consulted the copious historical record and squeezed as much information as he could from his taciturn relatives. The rest, he says, quoting the novelist Sherwood Anderson, who covered the 1935 moonshine trial and figures as a character in the novel, is “transmuted by fancy.”
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From a writer’s fact and fancy to movie myth: that’s the elevation attempted by the Australian duo of director John Hillcoat (The Road) and scripter Nick Cave (yes, the noted musician of Bad Seeds fame) in Lawless. Convening a sturdy cast from three continents — Americans Shia LaBeouf, Jessica Chastain and Dane DeHaan, the Englishmen Tom Hardy and Gary Oldman and Australians Mia Wasikowska, Jason Clarke and Guy Pearce — Hillcoat essays a period crime drama that is meant to summon comparisons with Bonnie and Clyde and Public Enemy and, from an earlier time in America’s outlaw history, with Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Hillcoat also might not mind if you thought of the three Bondurant brothers as the Corleones of rural Virginia.
Resist the impulse, because the movie, which opens August 31 in the U.S., never comes close to creating its own myth — though it’s plenty fancy. Bursting with well observed violence and boasting fine turns from its best performers, Lawless is too studied to be consistently vivid or gripping. Not directed so much as art-directed, this unquestionably handsome film (shot by the French cinematographer Benoît Delhomme) has a habit of placing actors of craggy demeanor in careful groups, as if posing them for a Walker Evans photograph. The scowls look genuine, but the movie is only a simulacrum of Bondurant’s book.
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“It is not the violence that sets a man apart,” Forrest observes. “It’s the distance he’s prepared to go.” Forrest and his enforcer brother Howard (Clarke) go the distance: brewing the hooch, paying off the cops, maintaining their primacy through Howard’s brute strength, Forrest’s brass knuckles and the sense of dread they instill in the competition. As Forrest says, “We control the fear. And without the fear we are good as dead.” By his lights, though, he’s a decent soul, never striking a man except in retaliation, and quietly revering Maggie, a burlesque dancer from Chicago who becomes the Bondurants’ business manager.
Their baby brother Jack (LaBeouf), considered too soft, has no role in the operation. To prove he’s a man and to impress his new girlfriend (Wasikowska) — and, really, because the Transformers star requires a central role that displays coming-of-age bravado — Jack hooks up with his sweet, brilliant pal Cricket (DeHaan) and is soon producing 1,000 gallons a week of the county’s best white lightning. He’s graduated to full Bondurant status.
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Firmly on the brothers’ side, the movie sees them as essentially honest small-businessmen, manufacturing and selling a product that, because of the only U.S. Amendment that would ever be repealed, was for 13 years illegal. The Bondurants’ real sin is not paying the taxes on their revenue, a crime that attracts the interest of Special Agent (presumably Internal Revenue agent) Charlie Rakes. Incarnated by Pearce as a perfumed dandy with audible smirks, Rakes is the kind of citified dude that Forrest might want to kill even if he were a dime-store clerk. But he’s much worse: a psychosexual sadist whose professional mission to take down the brothers is also his personal pleasure. Here its the law that’s lawless.
Watching the movie, you’ll likely wonder why the Bondurants take so long to dispatch the crazed, remorseless Special Agent. Rakes gives Jack a vicious workover, tars and feathers a Bondurant cousin and snaps the neck of a nice crippled kid in the brothers’ employ. Not until Forrest learns that Rakes’ men abused Maggie does he decide this lawman needs killing. Preposterous as narrative logic, this strategy suits the movie’s priorities. Hillcoat and Cave know that in Rakes they have found one of the juiciest miscreants in modern literary or cinematic fiction; the grand beast can’t die till the end.
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(In fact, Rakes survived the Bondurant shootouts and died of pneumonia a few years later. And that final showdown, choreographed in the film as an O.K. Corral gunfight with many police casualties, did not result in charges against the brothers; they testified in the 1935 moonshine trial as witnesses for the prosecution.)
No qualms with the actors, arguably this movie year’s most imposing ensemble; they infuse whatever vitality Lawless can claim. Chastain adds to her seven-film résumé from 2011 with a performance of poised, seductive gravity. Hardy, who played the villain Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, is especially imposing as the reticent bootlegger and borderline saint; an extralegal standard-bearer of justice in a corrupt town, he’s less Bane here than a rural Bruce Wayne. Oldman makes the most of his brief turn as the Chicago gangster Floyd Banner, a figure of ruthless charisma; and Bill Camp (who also has a meaty role in the indie thriller Compliance) is excellent as the Franklin County sheriff torn between his adversary relationship to the Bondurants and his loathing for the sicko Rakes. DeHaan and Wasikowska, two of Gabriel Byrne’s star patients on HBO’s In Treatment series, easily outshine LaBeouf. Maybe they should have been this film’s central couple.
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Yet Lawless remains more artifact than breathing work of art, let alone an adventure of throat-slitting impact. The punishing moments of violence will keep you alert, and perhaps cringing, but until that climactic shootout, much of the picture has a fossilized feeling; it could be a diorama under glass at the Museum of Nasty People. Strutting its serious-film credentials, Lawless tries to be flawless; as a movie, it’s often listless — lifeless.