There are enough movies about moonshining and the Prohibition Era as there were crime families getting rich off the swill. John Hillcoat’s “Lawless” is just another one of those burning cellar lights in the Virginia countryside, and it’s hard to see why this particular story is worth telling.
“Lawless” is a dusty, brown-looking film about the three Bondurant brothers in 1931 Virginia. The oldest brother Forrest (Tom Hardy) is a legend ‘round these parts because everyone believes he’s “indestructible.” He and his brothers make an honest living of dishonesty. Legendary gangsters roll in from Chicago with Tommy Guns, and they put up with it as part of their daily routine. Even the appearance of a ruthless federal officer (Guy Pearce) doesn’t seem to phase them, as they get richer, fall in love and live like kings.
It’s more of a character drama about people with different disciplines and convictions for violence than something with a stirring plot, but you wish they had more sense and purpose in life than to just start a blood war.
Hillcoat’s film is a super violent affair that glamorizes the bloodshed without pretense or reason. They slit throats, tar and feather bootleggers, cut off people’s testicles and walk blindly into gunfire, but the characters don’t act out of family values or morality, just a misguided sense of rage and maintaining a way of living.
Mostly, the performances are strong. Remember how in “The Dark Knight Rises” Tom Hardy as Bane always walked into a room with his fists clenched around his collar? It asserted a position of dominance but also protected his most vulnerable spot. As the understated and collected Forrest always muttering and glowering under a furrowed brow, he makes similarly careful choices by always putting his hands in his pockets. He’s casual and relaxed, but also prepared to grab his brass knuckles in case of a scuffle.
Guy Pearce too is rightfully over the top and charismatic in a film that celebrates so much violence. And yet the skilled actresses Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska have little to do except offer the film some color.
“Lawless” is an unnecessarily violent picture without enough to distinguish it from movies like “Once Upon a Time in America” and the current HBO show “Boardwalk Empire,” all of which still go down like hard liquor with a lot more flavor.
2 ½ stars