Why a movie doesn’t work is not necessarily a complicated or mysterious thing. Sometimes the reason is surprisingly simple. Take the case of Lawless. Despite everything the production has going for it — a great director, a gifted screenwriter, an inspired score and more acting talent than you can shake a Thompson gun at — it doesn’t work. At first glance, that may seem baffling.
So let’s take a second glance. The latest from Australian-born filmmaker John Hillcoat (The Road) is based on Matt Bondurant’s 2008 fact-based novel The Wettest County in the World. It’s a fictionalized account of his bootlegging grandfather and two grand-uncles and of events that took place in Franklin County, Va., during the early 1930s. See, here’s your problem: The Wettest County is just not a particularly interesting book.
All the money and moviemaking savvy in the world can’t turn ho-hum source material into riveting cinema, so it should come as no surprise that Lawless does not rivet. There’s a reason why nobody’s made a motion picture about the Bondurant Boys before now. As ruthless, gun-toting gangs go, they’re kind of on the snoozy side.
You know a character’s dull when Tom Hardy can’t make anything memorable out of him. He’s one of the finest, most inventive actors on the planet, yet his Forrest Bondurant, the oldest of the brothers and the brains of the outfit, is a bore who grunts incoherently and favors cardigan sweaters. He has a reputation as the toughest man in the Appalachian hills, but presents like a mumbly Fred MacMurray.
Hardy is British. Middle brother Howard, the outfit’s enforcer, is played by the Australian actor Jason Clarke. The runt of the litter, Jack, is played by Transformers series star Shia LaBeouf (really). Taking these three seriously as siblings, each sporting his own distinctive accent, requires big-time suspension of disbelief, to put it kindly.
As completely reimagined by Bondurant and adapted by Nick Cave, the author’s forebears’ story is a bloody but straightforward one: They run moonshine. When a federal special agent from Chicago named Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) arrives on the scene demanding a piece of the action, they refuse to cooperate. Shooting ensues. The end.
Hillcoat takes various stabs at padding the saga in an attempt to make it seem more epic than it really is. He has Pearce play Rakes as a sadistic, glove-wearing dandy. He has Gary Oldman commit a selection of violent acts in a cameo as a big-city crime boss. He has Jessica Chastain play a former showgirl who falls for Forrest, and Mia Wasikowska play a preacher’s daughter who falls for Jack. Neither of these narrative tangents nor the production’s numerous quirky touches (a hillbilly rendition of the Velvet Underground's “White Light/White Heat”?) add much to the proceedings, unfortunately. They just make the movie longer than you’re likely to wish it were.
On the upside, it’s not as though anyone who’s hankering for a Hillcoat period piece, scripted by Cave, about a band of brothers on the wrong side of the law has to make do with this watered-down concoction. The director mixed pretty much the same ingredients in 2005 in The Proposition, and the result was strong stuff. That was a movie that worked.