An adaptation of Matt Bondurant’s 2008 novel The Wettest County in the World, Lawless recounts the travails of the author’s grandfather and great uncles as three criminals slinging bootleg hooch across greater Virginia. Much like the dangerous profession it recounts, Lawless is an exciting if asperous affair. Cemented by the performances of a few key players, it reveals itself as a worthwhile crime fable that never reaches the levels of greatness it’s clearly striving for.

Lawless is a story begging for strong voices behind the lens. Of the players involved, director John Hillcoat (The Road) and cinematographer Benoît Delhomme come up the shortest. This is a period piece that’d have benefitted from a more distinctive look, as it were. But Hillcoat and Delhomme deliver uninspired, restrained work unbecoming of the story unfolding and the grimy sandbox they’re playing in. Lawless is an altogether clean-looking film with the sort of brightly-lit digital glaze you can get out of the latest Sony HD handicam. It looks good, if not wholly out of place. It’s part of what holds Lawless back, but it’s also a minor gripe when a film such as this works so well.

The story unfolds through the perspective of Shia LaBeouf’s Jack Bondurant. The youngest of three brothers, Jack wants a bigger piece of his brothers Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard’s (Jason Clarke) moonshine business they’re dealing out of the family’s diner. Jack’s aspirations come in direct conflict with, fresh arrived from Chicago, Charlie Rakes – a special agent enforcing bribes for the government under threat of extreme prejudice for the territory. Being among the few holdouts unwilling to comply, the Bondurant boys have themselves a good old-fashioned bloodfeud with Rakes, someone they comically view as “a bit of a nance” – but who reveals himself to be as dangerous if not more so than themselves.

And it does get bloody. Lawless sets up some solid character work so, when a supporting gets caught in the crossfire, it’s affecting. None moreso than Jessica Chastain’s Maggie – a new face at the diner and Forrest’s love interest. Aside from having the stugots to go full-merkin in the role, Chastain gives an immensely charging performance that pays off in a great exchange in the third act. This is a large cast but, of the satellite characters, hers is the finest. Elsewhere, Gary Oldman is wasted in what amounts to little more than a cameo.

I don’t know if any actor is having as bizarre a 2012 as Guy Pearce, careerwise. From scene devourer in Lockout to over-machinating old fuck in Prometheus, I’d like to think it’s all been building to Deputy Charley Rakes – one of the bugfuck weirdest characters to grace mainstream film in ages. Rakes starts the beginning of the film as “one weird dude” and works backwards from then on. I’m loath to label Rakes as an angrily repressed-homosexual, though overtones suggesting such a disposition are certainly omnipresent. That alone wouldn’t mean anything, but it’s the manner in which Rakes presents himself and carries out his tactics that make it a marrowy piece for Pearce. Rakes bathes himself in perfume, shaves the part in his hair to a perfectly straight line; even his tight leather gloves and odd manner of speaking put the character at a distance from the relaxed-Virginia drawl of those around him. No one in the film can put their finger on what’s so off-putting about Rakes (aside from being a “nance”), and thanks to Pearce’s magnificent performance the audience is left with much to discuss.

Pearce is so phenomenal that it’s easy to forget there’s work being done elsewhere as well. LaBeouf is decent in the film, progressing from tiny, squirrelly bootlegger to a bootlegger that’s still tiny but slightly less squirrely. The audience isn’t supposed to buy into his turn as a gangster, which is a good thing because it requires “The Man they call Beef” to do a minimal amount of progression. I’ll never forget watching The Departed and realizing, after years of denying it, that DiCaprio could capably handle badass and then some. There’s no such realization for LaBeouf in Lawless, he’s a fairly banal but reliable worker all things considered.

This should have been Tom Hardy’s picture, given how commanding a presence his Forrest is onscreen. Unfortunately Hillcoat loses his narrative in all these characters, and the screen suffers whenever Hardy’s not on or nearby. The most rewarding elements coming out of Lawless are seeing Hardy and Pearce disappear into their performances – Hardy’s Forrest Bondurant is an introverted yet gruff and pulpy presence that overshadows his two brothers. Hardy’s able to convey so much physicality in this short, stocky frame – he’s the meat and potatoes badass of a film demanding one. That he’s unfortunately sidelined in stretches doesn’t help Lawless‘ cause.

Equally unfortunate is the plot’s way of meandering and losing its way. We take detours when it feels like we should be escalating. I feel that’s commonplace with adaptation, especially when dealing with a recount of real life. It makes for some rudimentary aside-scenes with LaBeouf as he revels in the money inherent with the gangster life. We know he’s buying cars, suits, expensive cameras, but this isn’t fucking Scarface and that’s not the story Lawless is ever trying to tell anyways. Whether it should have been is up for debate, but ultimately cancelled out when the characters receive their Mega-Happy-Ending*.

Crime films work best as morality tales. Tony Montana ate a thousand bullets on account of ego. Neil McCauley got away with it all before he foolishly decided to settle a debt. Michael Corleone lost everything but the crushing guilt of murdering his own flesh and blood. Perhaps the Bondurant Clan was fertile territory to build framework around, but the ending and respective resolutions fall flat. To the point of nothing really being solved by the end of the film. I’d have rather seen a similar tale with fictional characters, as it would have provided the filmmakers an ending that feels truer thematically. We have an escalating narrative that doesn’t cost much of anything by the end of the film – aside from our characters embracing a quieter lifestyle. In a film surrounded by this much death and violence, it comes at surprising little cost. We can debate the merits of being true to an author’s work, but here it comes at the cost of a satisfying conclusion.

Lawless is a decent and highly entertaining effort. But in the few brief moments where it stands on the edge of greatness, you feel the thudding disappointment of the filmmakers never taking that final leap. There are great performances, no doubt. But surrounded by uninspired direction and an unfocused narrative, they end up raising material that could and should have risen to meet them on its own.


Out of a Possible 5 Stars

*Just sourcing Wayne’s World, don’t mind me…