Lawless is a portrait in anti-heroism, the real-life story of larger-than-life characters whose appeal comes from their refusal to play by the rules. Perhaps that's what makes it frustrating that the only reason it's not unequivocally awesome, is that it seems to give in to expectations.
Make no mistake: Director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave seem unlikely to build a movie around seeking out a mass audience. Their 2005 collaboration The Proposition was a jagged, uncompromising Australian "Western" built on a terrific premise; Hillcoat's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road was a tone-perfect interpretation of the novel's despair. There's a fundamental edge to Hillcoat's filmmaking that can't be entirely polished over, and it's part of what makes Lawless so engrossing so much of the time. It just never feels quite the same when it takes tentative steps toward the conventional.
This adaptation tackles Matt Bondurant's fact-based historical novel The Wettest County in the World, exploring the author's own family history. Set in 1931, it peeks into the rampant Prohibition-era moonshine production in the hills of Franklin County, Va., focusing on the three orphaned Bondurant brothers: Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia LaBeouf).
A certain equilibrium has been established regarding the locals looking the other way at these operations, but a new special agent of the commonwealth named Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) has decided he expects a piece of the action. And when all-out war commences, the younger and less hardened Jack might not be prepared for what's required of him.
Much of the narrative is built around the mythology that surrounds the older Bondurant boys — a legend of immortality — and Hillcoat exploits that notion in a number of cringingly violent set pieces, including one where Forrest finds himself at a rare disadvantage. He and Cave also set up the insular environment of the county and its code of mutual support that the law-enforcement outsiders start to unravel. Indeed, Lawless might have been even more fascinating had the filmmakers spent even more time turning Franklin County itself, with its peculiar sense of honor-among-thieves, into something like a character in the story.
As it stands, they already have several terrific characters who command their screen time. Hardy's a potent physical presence as the taciturn Forrest, conveying his power at times with little more than a grunt of acknowledgement. Gary Oldman also turns up for a brief, satisfying role as a gangster, and Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska are effective as the women caught in the middle of this violent world. But the eye-popping standout is Pearce, who creates a singularly menacing figure in the fastidious, self-righteous and merciless Rakes. Villain roles may get plenty of showy moments by their nature, but Pearce finds something uniquely creepy in this character's combination of big-city disdain for these backwoods people, and a brutal streak that makes him a worthy adversary for the Bondurants.
The collision between irresistible Rakes and immovable Forrest stays largely at the center of Lawless, but Hillcoat and Cave can't seem to avoid detours into romantic sub-plots that don't allow the story to play to its strengths. There's some good material in Forrest's tentative connection with the new-girl-in-town waitress played by Chastain, if only because it allows insight into a small chink in Forrest's armor. But there's too much time spent on Jack's courting of Wasikowska's rebel Mennonite girl, a tangent that provides a couple of well-acted scenes but nothing that advances Jack's character beyond what we see in his puffed-up personality after his deal-making lands the brothers a big score.
It's the kind of material that feels like it was tacked on after somebody's script notes wondered why there isn't "a love story" — even if that's not the way it actually went down.
In the best-case scenario, perhaps those lighter scenes serve as the "palate-cleansers" in what is otherwise a tense, viscerally effective period piece. Hillcoat and Cave know how to explore a world in which the primary moral choices seem to be "bad" and "worse." Lawless shines when it immerses viewers in that world, without having to remind us of what the world looks like when the hardest choice someone is making is when to kiss the girl.