The gangster became a movie hero during the Great Depression, when impoverished audiences found themselves drawn to amoral criminals who lashed out at a system that felt irreparably broken. With our 2012 economy still teetering on wobbly legs, the time feels right for the heroic gangster to make a comeback. But if that figure makes a certain amount of sense, its execution in Lawless does not. The film, directed by John Hillcoat, provides no compelling reason to root for or care about its backwoods bootleggers. They're basically violent thugs in a fight with another violent thug who happens to work for the government. If they're the lesser of two evils, they're also the blander of the two as well.
"They" would be the Bondurant brothers, a trio of real-life booze smugglers from the 1930s: tough-as-nails Forrest (Tom Hardy), drunk-as-a-skunk Howard (Jason Clark), and quiet-as-a-mouse Jack (Shia LaBeouf). They run a successful underground distillery in Prohibition-era Virginia, but their business suffers a setback when Special Deputy Floyd Banner (Guy Pearce) is assigned to bring Franklin County's bootlegging under control. Banner is an odd duck: no eyebrows, severely parted hair, with strange predilections about cleanliness and sexuality.
Pearce certainly makes Banner a vividly bizarre character, but that also makes him an odd match, chemistry-wise, with the Bondurants, who, as played by Hardy, Clark and LaBeouf, are reserved and introspective, more likely to grunt at each other than exchange actual lines of dialogue (this makes two roles in a row for the marble-mouthed Hardy, after The Dark Knight Rises, where you'll be straining to understand his every word). The culture clash between the slick cop and the rustic rubes is part of their dynamic, but it's so overstated that the two factions seem to come from different universes, not different sides of the law.
Forrest and Jack each have their own love subplot; Forrest falls for another transplanted outsider, a redheaded waitress from Chicago named Maggie (Jessica Chastain) while Jack woos a local preacher's daughter (Mia Wasikowska). Chastain and Wasikowska break up the monotony of the bottle hauling and tough-guy posturing, but their presence is otherwise inconsequential. The same goes for Gary Oldman, who appears just often enough in the film as a big-time racketeer with an outsized personality to make you wish he was in a lot more of it. The film's greatest strength -- and also its most problematic weakness -- is its cinematography by Benoit Delhomme. His work is handsome and glossy in a way that feels at cross-purposes with Lawless' earthy characters and the gruesomely graphic violence they inflict on one another.
It still seems like a timely moment to reintroduce gangsters into our cinematic lexicon -- one is tempted to read the Bondurants' anti-government stance as some metaphor for the modern day Tea Party -- but don't expect these guys to join the likes of Little Caesar or Scarface as classic icons of antiheroism. As presented by Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave (the same team that brought us the far superior The Proposition), they're basically just a bunch of self-involved hoodlums. After one of their battles with Banner, Forrest tells his family that the feud "isn't about the money, it's about the principle." It is? I guess that principle is "Don't let the government shut down your illegal distillery and take your money."
Matt Singer runs Criticwire, the blog of film criticism at Indiewire. He's also the co-host of the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast and a frequent contributor to ScreenCrush.com. Follow him on Twitter at @mattsinger.