The line between the lawmen and the lawless is a thin or invisible one in John Hillcoat's new movie.
In "Lawless," opening in theaters today, Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) is a special deputy from Chicago and a sadistic dandy with severely parted and dyed black hair and a fondness for fancy suits, bow ties and leather gloves, which he likes to keep immaculate. His hands and those of many others, however, are far from clean in this fictionalized look at moonshiners who operated during the Depression.
2.5 stars = Average
- Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke.
- Rating: R for strong bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity.
The movie opens with "based on a true story," although its source is Matt Bondurant's "The Wettest County in the World," a novel inspired by a real story. He is the grandson of one of the three Bondurant brothers featured in the film.
They're legendary in their part of Virginia, considered invincible based on their history. Howard (Jason Clarke) survived the carnage of World War I, middle brother Forrest (Tom Hardy) weathered the Spanish Flu that killed the men's parents, and Jack (Shia LaBeouf) is just coming into his own as the story opens in 1931.
"Lawless" depicts attempts by Rakes to intimidate or break the brothers he calls hicks and a sideshow. The local sheriff cautions the outsider that he just can't shoot the well-liked Bondurant brothers, especially Forrest, who quietly and efficiently runs the bootlegging business.
Jack, once so innocent that he couldn't put a bullet in a pig, develops a taste for white lightning and money and pines for Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), a member of a conservative Christian sect who secretly thrills to his attention. Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a pretty red-haired outsider from the city, shows up looking for work and quiet at the gas station-bar-restaurant Forrest runs.
It's anything but quiet, though, as the Bondurants not only refuse to shut down their stills but also expand their moonshining business. You can assume this is going to end badly and it does, but not in the way you might anticipate.
Mr. Hillcoat, who used an Atlanta suburb to cheat for Prohibition-era Virginia, provides atmosphere to spare. From the jalopies to the period-era metal signs and the trousers whose dusty seats are baggy from daily wear, "Lawless" nails the details.
Its cast not only includes Mr. Hardy, looking and sounding little like Bane from "The Dark Knight Rises," but his co-star, Gary Oldman, in a small role as gangster Floyd Banner. It's Mr. LaBeouf, though, who shines as the love-struck, ambitious brother who enlists a pal (Dane DeHaan) hobbled by rickets to build a better still.
"Lawless" reunites the director with writer and composer Nick Cave; the pair collaborated on "The Proposition," a Western featuring a trio of brothers and set in the remote Australian Outback of the 1870s.
In case you're squeamish, "Lawless" spills a lot of blood although the story rarely gets under your skin the way it should. Injuries that would kill lesser men are surmountable here in a way that defies belief. True, the stitches from a vicious slashing aren't pretty, but it seems as if the victim would have bled out long before reaching a doctor with 1930s-style tools and meds at his disposal.
Many of the characters in "Lawless" are either one-dimensional, as with the loathsome Rakes, the stuff of fairy tales or complex and underexplored. It's a good movie that seems as if it tried to be great but missed and landed in the no-man's land of late August.