American hangover

Evocative prohibition-era bootlegger/gangster flick eventually crippled by excess

Old-timey moonshine wars.

Old-timey moonshine wars.

Starring Shia LaBoeuf, Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce and Jessica Chastain. Directed by John Hillcoat. Rated R.
Rated 3.0

One of the things I like about Lawless is its hybrid music track—a gently discordant mixture of bluegrass, folk rock and recycled proto-punk. Organized by Nick Cave, the Australian rock star/novelist who is also the film’s screenwriter, the soundtrack makes its crowning statements via two separate versions of the Lou Reed/Velvet Underground speed-freak classic “White Light/White Heat”—one a rollicking rocker by Cave and his band The Bootleggers, and the other a haunted backwoods take-down with bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley doing the vocals.

The doubled-down remake of that song makes good sense for an amped-up tale of moonshiners in Prohibition-era Virginia. Lawless is part period piece, part twisted action flick—and partly a sidelong remake/update of earlier gangster/bootlegger pictures, including some (e.g. Bonnie and Clyde) that were remakes of a sort themselves.

The crossover spirit prevails within the attractive cast as well: Americans (Shia LaBeouf, Jessica Chastain and Dane DeHaan), Brits (Tom Hardy and Gary Oldman) and Aussies (Mia Wasikowska, Jason Clarke and Guy Pearce), all of them playing either backwoods Virginians or Chicago-based interlopers. The bootlegging Bondurant brothers—“invincible” Forrest (Hardy), half-crazed war-vet Howard (Clarke), and baby-faced Jack (LaBoeuf)—are the putative protagonists in this tale drawn from Matt Bondurant’s semi-speculative historical novel about his own family’s involvement in rural Virginia’s Prohibition-era “moonshine wars.”

Cave and director John Hillcoat (also Australian) serve this up as a sort of dour outlaw ballad, with Jack narrating a family legend of ostensibly honorable bootleggers defending themselves against Depression-era poverty and the hypocrisies of Prohibition, as well as the incursions of big city mobsters (Oldman and others) and corrupt officials (Pearce especially).

A pair of flimsy romantic subplots involve Forrest with Maggie (Chastain), a burlesque dancer fleeing the Chicago underworld, and Jack with Bertha (Wasikowska), a doe-eyed maiden in need of rescue from a family of religious zealots.

The Pearce character, an extravagantly dandified “special deputy” named Charlie Rakes, gets an overblown subplot of his own, and that, more than anything else, throws the film seriously off track. The movie’s Rakes lurches into high-camp caricature: a prissy, deathly pale sadist and sexual predator coming on like Count Dracula in a bowtie and spats. That’s the clinching example of the movie copping out on its own best possibilities.

Initially, Lawless comes on as an earnest, shot-on-location period piece, with a chillingly forthright sense of the role played by brutal menace and savage violence in the local moonshine business. However, while Hardy’s Forrest, the Bondurants’ shrewd and daunting warrior chieftain, is a reasonably interesting characterization, everyone else in the film, including the Pearce/Rakes monstrosity and LaBoeuf’s one-dimensional Jack, is lost to the demands of a slightly rancid sentimentality.