Watching the way director John Hillcoat takes nearly tactile pleasure in the Prohibition-era details of Lawless, you get the sense that real cinematic ambition is at work. With an assist from D.P. Benoit Delhomme, Hillcoat composes a rich palette of burnished yellows, smoky grays and arboreal greens. Mist snakes its way through lush Appalachian forests, snow perfectly dusts dirt roads, and every frame seems like an Edward Hopper painting come to life had Hopper trained his brush on the backwaters of Virginia.
Hillcoat's characters are similarly sketched with dramatic verve, even when their roles in the story don't amount to much. Shia LaBeouf is probably the best he's ever been as a young criminal wannabe. Thomas Hardy once again proves that poor enunciation is no impediment to intensity. Gary Oldham explodes with swagger and fury as a tommy gun-wielding gangster. Jessica Chastain looks like she has stepped out of a Raymond Chandler novel. And the ever-reliable Guy Pierce turns a laughably Brylcreemed haircut and dandified duds into a chilling uniform of corruption and depravity.
Taken only on its slick surfaces, Lawless seems to strive to be The Godfather of moonshine movies. Unfortunately, Nick Cave's (yes, of Bad Seeds fame) superficial and shapeless script undermines Hillcoat's impeccable production values and deft direction.
Based on Matt Bondurant's novel The Wettest County in the World, a fictionalized account of his family's moonshine-running history, Lawless follows the three Bondurant brothers tightly coiled Forrest (Hardy), unstable Howard (Jason Clarke) and reckless Jack (LaBeouf) who sell their home-brewed alcohol from the back of their pickup. Dreaming of bigger and better things, Jack pushes the family to expand production and sell their moonshine to Chicago mobsters. This is complicated, however, by a corrupt lawman (Pierce denuded of eyebrows), who seeks to crush the Bondurants because they refuse to pay protection money.
Sounds straightforward enough. Too bad Cave throws in a Chicago showgirl (Chastain) running away from her past, Jack's awkward courtship with a Mennonite beauty named Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), an attempt by Floyd Banner (Oldham) to muscle into the territory, and at least two or three other barely sketched subplots. The story feels so sprawling and unfocused you begin to wonder if an additional hour of film was left on the cutting room floor.
Hillcoat does his best to create a slow burning epic (punctuated with vivid and shocking violence) that's engaging but the central conflict is so scattershot it never builds dramatic momentum. All the arty compositions and lived-in performances can't make up for what is essentially an exercise in period pulp. It's entertaining in fits and starts, and Cave briefly touches on some interesting ideas particularly the myths criminals create about themselves but at the end of its two-hour running time, Lawless neither reveals anything nor goes anywhere important.
That said, the credits are capped by an intensely haunting cover of the Velvet Underground's "White Light/White Heat," delivered in stark a cappella by Ralph Stanley. When considering where to spend your hard-earned cash, the movie is optional, but the soundtrack is a must.