Make no mistake: Director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave (yes, the songwriter) seem unlikely to build a movie around seeking out a mass audience. There’s a fundamental edge to Hillcoat’s filmmaking that can’t be entirely polished, and it’s part of what makes Lawless so engrossing. It just never feels quite the same when it takes tentative steps toward the conventional.
This adaptation tackles Matt Bondurant’s fact-based historical novel, The Wettest County in the World, exploring the author’s own family history. Set in 1931, it peeks into the rampant Prohibition-era moonshine production in the hills of Franklin County, Virginia, focusing on the three orphaned Bondurant brothers: Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia LaBoeuf). A certain equilibrium has been established regarding the locals, who look the other way at these operations, but a new special agent of the commonwealth named Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) has decided he expects a piece of the action. And when all-out war commences, the younger and less hardened Jack might not be prepared for what’s required of him.
Much of the narrative is built around the mythology that surrounds the older Bondurant boys — a legend of immortality — and Hillcoat exploits the notion that in a number of cringingly violent set pieces, including one where Forrest finds himself at a rare disadvantage. Indeed, Lawless might have been more fascinating had the filmmakers spent even more time turning Franklin County itself, with its peculiar sense of honor-among-thieves, into something like a character in the story.
As it stands, they already have several terrific characters who command their screen time. Hardy is a potent physical presence as the taciturn Forrest, conveying his power at times with little more than a grunt of acknowledgement. Gary Oldman also turns up for a brief, satisfying role as a gangster, and Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska are effective as the women caught in the middle of this violent world. But the eye-popping standout is Pearce, who creates a singularly menacing figure as the fastidious, self-righteous and merciless Rakes.
The collision between irresistible Rakes and immovable Forrest stays largely at the center of Lawless, but Hillcoat and Cave can’t seem to avoid detours into romantic subplots that don’t allow the story to play to its strengths. There’s some good material in Forrest’s tentative connection with the new-girl-in-town waitress played by Chastain — if only because it allows insight into a small chink in Forrest’s armor. But there’s too much time spent on Jack’s courting of Wasikowska’s rebel Mennonite girl, a tangent that provides a couple of well-acted scenes but nothing that advances Jack’s character.
In the best-case scenario, perhaps those lighter scenes serve as the “palate cleansers” in what is otherwise a tense, viscerally effective period piece. Lawless shines when it immerses viewers in that world, without having to remind us of what the world looks like when the hardest choice someone is making is when to kiss the girl.