If you watch the 1930s-set backwoods gangster flick “Lawless” and don’t know better, and you’d be a major idiot not to know better, you might think tiny, mountainous Franklin County, Va., is over the hill and through the woods and one covered bridge over from big bad Windy City Chicago. Director John Hillcoat and screenwriter (and rock god) Nick Cave, who previously collaborated on the excellent “The Proposition” and the very good “The Road,” likely believe so. Someone get them a map STAT.
But I digress, as I always do with the details.
The duo has taken the wonderfully titled non-fiction family-history novel “The Wettest County in the World” by (our proximity) local author Matt Bondurant and drably re-titled it as “Lawless.” It follows a backwoods trio of Bondurant brothers (Tom Hardy, Shia LeBeouf, and Jason Clarke) who moonlight as moonshiners, selling the vile-looking homemade hooch during the days of Prohibition. Sure enough, things go wrong.
In the span of just a few weeks, a (1) former go-go dancer, (2) infamous mob boss, and (3) corrupt federal agent -– all from Chicago, all on separate missions in life -– end up in wee Rocky Mount, and onto the brothers, they respectively, 1) land a job at the family diner/gas station, 2) sniff out killer booze to sell back home, and 3) terrorize the siblings with endlessly wicked means of unlawful law enforcement. The newcomers are played by 1) Jessica Chastain, 2) Gary Oldman, and 3) Guy Pearce.
The Rocky Mount and Chicago depicted here each must have one only road going out, and it meets in the middle, and provides light-speed travel a la “Star Trek” Heck, today it takes roughly 12 hours to get from Rocky Mount to Chicago. Here, pre-Interstate, it is magically faster. How fast is to get to Philadelphia? An hour? Does the title refer to liquor running, or the rules of physics and distance?
But no matter these logic lapses, nor the cliché dialogue, “Lawless” floats and sinks on the acting. I’ll focus on the guys as the women (Mia Wasikowska also co-stars as a love interest) are only allowed to look “purty” and be supportive. Tom “Bane” Hardy grunts most of his scenes to ill-advised comic effect, while Clarke howls madly with his slimly written character. LeBeouf (former son of Indiana Jones) tries his best as a wimpy runt who must become a hardened man, but his character arc is foolish and laughably misguided.
It’s –- shocker — Pearce that near kills this film. “Proposition,” “Memento and “L.A. Confidential” are each new classics, and he excels in all. Here, he overacts himself right out of the movie as a sissy snot named Rakes, channeling Dennis Hopper at his most vile playing Dame Edna playing an endlessly psychotic version of super-agent-man Elliot Ness with a subscription to GQ for Sadists. Sporting ridiculously parted hair and shaved eyebrows, Rakes fears blood, and yet –- it is inferred -– gets his thrills raping crippled boys after he murders them in the woods. In a gangster flick set on Mars by David Lynch on full-tilt crazy, Rakes would stick out as a ridiculous sham.
One piece of divine greatness: Legendary bluegrass singer and Southwestern Virginia native Ralph Stanley covers the Velvet Underground’s “White Light /White Heat” at film’s end, and it’s an absolutely riveting, soul crushing performance that deserves a far better movie to precede it. For that matter, the entire music score, led by the genius Cave, elevates the movie, especially a breath-taking church singing which hits the soul dead center with pure joy-of-God beauty that can uplift an agnostic. The film misses, and not just geographically.
-Steven Mackay, Lyric volunteer