It's easy to get excited about the amount of quality ingredients Lawless brings to its true-crime brew: director John Hillcoat (who made the underseen, underrated The Road), post-punk icon Nick Cave, who not only wrote the screenplay but also composed the score with Dirty Three violinist Warren Ellis, and the presence of actors like Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska and Gary Oldman. It's about that weirdest, most fascinating of all 20th century American social engineering mistakes, Prohibition, and it's based on Matt Bondurant's fictionalized history of his bootlegging family and their battles with the Law, The Wettest County in the World. It's lushly photographed and its period details authentic. The foamy head on the illegal beer: 85-year-old bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley gets to perform his take on The Velvet Underground's "White Light/White Heat" over the closing credits.
To extend the alcohol analogy just a little bit more (and then I'll be done with it, promise), it's just as easy to get fall-down, barfy drunk and pee your pants on the good stuff as it is the cheap stuff. And that's how it all goes south here, an accumulation of wrong-headed details that distract and ultimately weigh down an already too-conventional story of criminal ascendance, hubris, comeuppance and redemption. It wants to be Bonnie and Clyde. Instead it's Old-Timey Scarface and His Alcoholic Superhero Brothers.
Shia LaBeouf, a young man already scrambling to get out from under the shadow of Optimus Prime by wisely seeking out work with demanding directors like Lars Von Trier (in 2013's The Nymphomaniac), is saddled with carrying his first serious adult-oriented film (not counting Eagle Eye, and there's no reason you should). But when the script calls for him to go through the Tony Montana motions in vintage clothes and to affect a wildly fluctuating Southern accent, it's hard not to feel a little sorry for the mess he's gotten himself into. Hardy, who plays LaBeouf's older brother, also suffers. The script puts myth before man so literally that his character's defining attribute is that he's made of indestructible materials and easily survives shootings where literal holes are blown through major organs. That he also can't seem to decide which dialect of the American South he likes best is just more weird on top of weird. As comic relief -- his dialogue consists of a series of distrusting grunts and murmurs that unexpectedly give way to eloquent ruminations on the nature of humanity, fear and morality -- he's more than the film deserves and less than enough to save it from itself.
But nobody gets scorched as deeply as Guy Pearce, cast as a supervillain Special Deputy with an extreme hair-part and a vaguely Euro-rodent manner of speaking. That he's not an animated character playing against the rest of the cast, Roger Rabbit-style, is all that's missing from his cartoon-like presence, one that throws the film full tilt into the directional confusion and chaos it flirts with from the beginning. Characters drift in and out, symbolic motifs peek up out of the brush (cockfighting, of course, identical Foghorn Leghorns attempting to peck one another to death) before scurrying away and everything ultimately finds itself drowned in the spray of machine gun bullets and huge, splattery squibs.
Brother-against-brother-against-crime-boss-against-retro-drug-war-metaphor never felt so much like a field trip to the least interesting art museum in the city: pretty things to look at everywhere and your boring old history teacher phoning in a lecture you tune out as quickly as you can.