I realize that this might sound strange, considering that this was the year of The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Prometheus, and so many other high-profile movies, but Lawless was one of my most highly-anticipated films for 2012. The reason why is simple: The talent involved.

Even if I had never seen any of John Hillcoat’s previous work, I had still heard enough great things about his filmmaking skills to be hyped. Then there was the cast: Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Gary Oldman, and Guy Pearce, any one of whom would be enough to get my ass in a seat. The film even features Dane DeHaan, who burst onto the scene in a big way with his lead performance in Chronicle earlier this year.

Yes, the inclusion of Shia LaBeouf was rather puzzling, but I don’t have anything against the guy. Yes, LaBeouf has put in quite a few bad performances and God knows he seems like a bit of a prick, but I still think the guy has potential. If nothing else, someone who’s worked with such directors as Steven Spielberg, Michael Bay, Alex Proyas, Oliver Stone, Emilio Estevez, Robert Redford, and Lars von Trier is obviously doing something right, or at least has a singular ability to choose his projects well. I don’t make any excuses for LaBeouf, but I can’t help rooting for him. The point being that LaBeouf was given an incredibly stacked deck with this movie, and I was keenly interested to see how he would fare with it.

So after roughly a year of waiting and several botched attempts at getting a ticket, I finally got to see this film. And I came out feeling like something was missing.

Let’s take it from the top. Our film is set in 1930, during the waning years of Prohibition. We open in Virginia’s Franklin County, commonly called “The Wettest County in the World” because of all the moonshine distilleries in the area. The movie focuses on one particular group of bootleggers, the legendary Bondurant Brothers.

I use the term “legendary” because the Bondurants have a history of surviving wars, plagues, and so on. Hence the local myth that the Bondurants are immortal. Nobody takes the legend more seriously than Forrest Bondurant, and not without reason: The guy got his throat cut from ear to ear, took four bullets to the chest in a separate incident, and lived to tell both tales.

Forrest (Hardy) is the eldest brother. He’s the brains, muscle, and chief negotiator for the family bootlegging business. At his right hand is Howard Bondurant (Jason Clarke), known primarily for being one dangerous animal after a few drinks. Their driver is the runt of the litter, Jack Bondurant (LaBeouf), a weakling who wants to be a tough guy like big brother Forrest.

Anyway, things are going well for the Bondurants when we first meet them. They’re running their business without difficulty, mostly because the local police are among their regular customers. Then along comes Charlie Rakes (Pearce), a special deputy who’s been transferred in from Chicago to clean things up. The Bondurants get an offer to continue about their business, so long as law enforcement gets a cut, but Forrest is too proud to accept that. So the entire county becomes a war zone.

(Side note: The film is based on a book called “The Wettest County in the World.” It was written by Matt Bondurant, who happens to be Jack’s grandson. So yes, this is based on a true story.)

Before I go any further, I should say that on a technical level, the film is solid. The cinematography looks great, the editing is fine, the production design is remarkable, and the music suits the film perfectly. Furthermore, I was pleased to see that the actors were all putting a great amount of effort into their characters, which elevated the film considerably. Yes, I know that Hardy is in danger of being typecast as the no-nonsense guy who will beat the shit out of anyone who crosses him, and I know Hardy is a more versatile actor than that, but I don’t care. I could watch two solid hours of Hardy beating people up and call it a ticket well-bought.

Gary Oldman also turns in fine work as Floyd Banner. He’s a gangster with a crucial yet pitifully brief role in the plot. Oldman is clearly having such a great time with the role that I found it regrettable he didn’t get more screentime. Kudos are also due to Dane DeHaan, who does a remarkable job of earning audience sympathy as Jack’s other partner in crime, “Cricket” Pate.

As for LaBeouf, this is certainly the best performance he’s given to date, though I don’t think that’s saying much. He’s still acted off the screen by his fellow cast members, though given the quality of this cast, I don’t think that’s saying much either. So all in all, I guess there isn’t much to say about his performance here. Moving on.

I want to stress that this is a good movie. There are a lot of great moments of action and drama, with some interesting statements about mortality, and a few effective pinches of comedy relief for good measure. Yet I got the feeling early on that something was missing. Somehow, I never got that gut feeling like I was watching something truly amazing. It took me a while to figure out what was wrong, until it finally came to me: The characters.

We know that the Bondurants are in the bootlegging business, but we never learn why. Are they providing some much-needed service? Are they putting their ill-gotten gains toward some altruistic use? Is there some personal reason why they live a life of crime? We never definitively learn what their motivation is, though it’s implied that the crime is done for crime’s sake. Forrest Bondurant appears to be a prideful man who hates authority on principle, and the cash they gain is either stashed away toward some unknown end or spent on frivolities.

Basically put, I have absolutely no reason to root for the Bondurants. The film expects us to emotionally invest in the brothers, even as they commit murder and assault multiple times, but I could never bring myself to do so. I couldn’t even get invested in Jack all that much, given that his development arc involves becoming more like his overly violent siblings.

The other side of the equation isn’t any better, unfortunately. There’s no point in cheering for the cops, because we already know that they’re corrupt. As for Special Deputy Rakes, don’t make me laugh. It’s really quite astonishing how far this film went to establish Rakes as a preening, douchey, cartoonishly evil villain. Rakes is so far removed from reality and so utterly impossible to like that I found myself questioning the film’s “based on a true story” status whenever Rakes appeared.

Indeed, I later learned that though Nick Cave initially wrote the film as closely as possible to Matt Bondurant’s non-fictional account, the character was tweaked to be more villainous at the behest of — wait for it — Guy Pearce. Not only did the actor change the character to fit his wants and needs (I personally believe it should be the other way around), but Pearce actively made the character suck more. I lost a lot of respect for Pearce when I found that out.

Alas, Rakes wasn’t the only character to get shafted by the screenplay. It’s worth pointing out that of the three Bondurants, Howard is the only one who isn’t played by an actor with his name above the title. He’s also the only one who doesn’t get a development arc and the only one whose love interest doesn’t appear until the denouement.

The point being that this makes the movie feel unfocused. The film could easily have been a portrait of one Bondurant, or it could have been a film about all three. But by putting such a heavy focus on two brothers while pushing the third to the wayside, it doesn’t feel like either one. Or maybe Howard just got less screentime because he’s the middle sibling, I don’t know.

Speaking of characters who got short shrift, let’s look at the female cast members. Jessica Chastain is on hand to play Maggie Beauford, a former Chicago burlesque dancer looking for a more quiet life (ha!) waiting tables at the Bondurants’ saloon. Chastain is clearly putting all of her talent into this role, but she’s still terribly under-utilized. Though she does affect the plot in some important ways and she acts as a pseudo-mother figure for the brothers, her relationship with Forrest felt very underdone. Still, at least she got a better deal than Mia Wasikowska did.

Waskikowska plays Bertha Minnix, daughter of the local preacher. She’s Jack’s love interest, and the relationship plays out in such a way that we see the contrast between Jack’s dangerous background vs. the nice guy that Jack really is. In terms of theme, it’s important. In terms of plot, it’s completely superfluous. Everything about this storyline up until the epilogue could have been cut out of the film entirely and it wouldn’t have changed a thing. The film might even have been better off for it, considering that Wasikowska and LaBeouf have terrible chemistry.

With all of that said, I must repeat that both of these actresses are clearly doing the best they could with what they had. I’ve yet to see a movie that didn’t immediately brighten up when Chastain was onscreen, and Wasikowska’s career was the only good thing to ever come out of Alice in Wonderland. These actors are awesome, but the characters they play here are subpar. In fact, the same could be said for most of the actors in this picture.

In spite of all my complaints, I must stress that Lawless is not a bad movie. It’s technically proficient, with great camerawork, a wonderful score, and a cast full of talented actors putting in a ton of effort. It’s a good movie, but that’s the problem: It’s just good. It’s merely adequate. With so much talent behind it, this film could have and should have been great. The film might easily have reached those lofty heights, if only our protagonists were genuinely sympathetic or interesting instead of only being watchable.

All told, I think that Lawless is best described as a palate cleanser. In terms of story, quality, and release date, the film is perfectly situated as a bridge between the summer blockbusters and the awards contenders. I strongly doubt the movie will win any Oscars itself (though with the Weinsteins involved, it’s hard to tell), but it’s still a very nice appetizer for the Oscar candidates to come in the following months.

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