"Lawless," director John Hillcoat's dusty story of gentle country bootleggers warring with corrupt urban Prohibition enforcers, offers a number of admirable performances, a few memorable scenes and a few outbursts of raw, jagged violence. But for a movie about men who risked it all in an illegal drinking business, "Lawless" is frustratingly weak brew.
Based on "The Wettest County in the World," Matt Bondurant's 2008 historical novel about his own family ancestors' experience with Prohibition, "Lawless" is part gritty gangster flick and part coming-of-age tale. Like the book, it follows three Bondurant brothers, a trio of bootleggers who made and sold moonshine in Franklin County, Va. There's the youngest, Jack (Shia LaBeouf), the mumbling leader, Forrest (Tom Hardy), and the drunken wild man, Howard (Jason Clarke).
The two older brothers have a small-scale bootlegging operation that runs smoothly and successfully — at least until bow-tie-wearing Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) arrives in town and threatens to upend the business unless the brothers buy into a larger network of bribes and payoffs to government officials. After an early encounter takes Forrest out of the picture, Jack takes the lead in the family business, making a deal with sneering supergangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) that vaults the Bondurants' small-time operation into the big leagues.
Like the Bondurants' business, the story is strictly small-time, but the big-league performances are what keep the movie going. Mr. Hardy, last seen as the masked heavy Bane in "The Dark Knight Rises," mutters and grunts through the film in a voice that sounds like Bane on downers. Mr. LaBeouf, never much of an actor, proves competent enough, though mostly because he chooses to stay out of the way.
The best turns, however, come from Mr. Oldman and Mr. Pearce, two veteran character actors who each brings a sense of intensity and madness to the film. Mr. Oldman only has a few scenes, but his creepy, pencil-thin mustache steals every one. As scene-stealing creepiness goes, though, nothing Mr. Oldman serves up even remotely compares with the immaculately dressed, slickly coiffed alcohol agent played Mr. Pearce. Leering and sneering, he dishes out violence with flourishes of sadistic satisfaction. Mr. Pearce, one of the most versatile and underrated actors in Hollywood, projects an oily, unseemly evil, like some minor demon functionary let loose in Prohibition America. It's preposterous and utterly arresting all at once.
Too bad the rest of the film is so by-the-numbers. In his first feature, "The Proposition," Mr. Hillcoat mustered a stunning and stomach-churning defense of decency and civility amid the lawlessness of the Australian Outback. The grisly violence remains, but there's no great idea at stake. Nick Cave's screenplay goes through the motions — conflict, rising stakes, characters coming to grip with themselves — but never does anything unexpected. In the end, the biggest problem with "Lawless" is that it plays by the rules.
CREDITS: Directed by John Hillcoat; screenplay by Nick Cave
RATING: R for violence, nudity, language
RUNNING TIME: 115 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS