Published Aug 29, 2012Australian director John Hillcoat and screenwriter/musician Nick Cave take on the mythicizing and romanticising of outlaw behaviour in this adaptation of historical novel The Wettest County in the World.
Franklin, Virginia is said county and the novel's titular saturation refers to the vast proliferation of good ole, bandit-brewed moonshine in the area. The Bondurant brothers ― Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia LaBeouf) ― are local legends amidst the densest concentration of bootlegging outfits in the entire country.
Through the exaggeration of remarkable luck and frequent displays of unflinching confidence and psychotic aggression, the older siblings, Forrest and Howard, have built the family a daunting reputation. The strength of their myth is tested when an opportunistic politician unleashes a vicious, arrogant, clearly closeted and self-hating homophobic DEA agent from Chicago to crack down on the illegal booze trade.
Relishing every bite of scenery, Guy Pearce creates a memorable, quirk-ridden sociopath in the eyebrow-less Special Agent Charlie Rakes. With powerhouses Pearce, Tom Hardy and Jessica Chastain leading the senior cast, veterans Gary Oldman and Noah Taylor in little more than cameos, and another extremely well-developed performance by the young Dane DeHaan (Chronicle), as awkward and affable 'shine cook Cricket, Lawless is an underwritten orgy of great character actors with Shia LaBeouf stuck in the middle, trying his hardest not to fail in the eyes of his peers.
For the most part, it works, because that's exactly how delicate baby brother Jack feels amongst his swaggering older siblings and notorious gangsters like Floyd Banner (Oldman). Jack's need to puff up his ego backfires ― kind of like the subplot that sees him courting a local preacher's daughter. Sure, it's how author Matthew Bondurant's grandparents met, but the scenes between LaBeouf and Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) fall flat, deflating tension and compromising the momentum of this economically shot feature, especially compared to the nuanced exchanges between Hardy and Chastain.
While often brutal in its depiction of graphic violence, what leaves a stronger impression in Lawless is its quiet examination of how ego can cause a man to believe in his own myth. Had Hillcoat found a way to reinforce that theme more in the filmmaking, this could have been more than just an above-average period drama. (Alliance)