Lawless is a portrait of real-world anti-heroism, a story of larger-than-life characters who refuse to play by the rules. It would be awesome if it didn't yield to expectations.
Director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave don't seem to be courting a mass audience. Their jagged Aussie "western" The Proposition was built on a terrific premise, and Hillcoat did a tone-perfect adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's despairing The Road. Hillcoat's filmmaking has an edge that's hard to soften and impossible to ignore. It helps make Lawless engrossing, but it doesn't work when the story tiptoes toward convention.
Lawless peers inside a Prohibition-era moonshine operation in the hills of Franklin County, Va. Based on Matt Bondurant's factual historical novel The Wettest County in the World, the plot concerns three orphaned brothers who are also the author's ancestors. The locals tend to overlook this trio's illicit activities, but Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a new special agent, wants a piece of the action. When an all-out war begins, youngest brother Jack (Shia LaBoeuf) may not be ready to defend the business. Much of the narrative explores an immortality legend involving the older Bondurant boys, Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke). Meanwhile, Rakes chips away at the community's code of mutual support, which has a peculiar honor-among-thieves vibe.
This film might have been doubly fascinating had Hillcoat and Cave made Franklin County into even more of a character. As it stands, several terrific characters command the screen. Hardy's a potent physical presence as the taciturn Forrest, and Gary Oldman makes a brief, satisfying appearance as a gangster. Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska work as the women caught in the middle of this violent game. But the standout is Pearce, who creates a singularly menacing figure in the fastidious, self-righteous and merciless Rakes. He highlights something uniquely creepy about Rakes, who sports a big-city disdain for backwoods people and a brutal streak that makes him a worthy adversary for the Bondurants.
The collision between irresistible Rakes and immovable Forrest drives the story, but the filmmakers weaken its impact with lovey-dovey subplots. Forrest's tentative connection with the new girl in town (Chastain) illuminates a small chink in his armor, but Jack's relationship with a Mennonite rebel girl (Wasikowska) seems tacked onto the script. These lighter scenes could serve as palate cleansers in an otherwise tense, viscerally effective period piece. Whether they do is up for debate.
Hillcoat and Cave know how to depict a world where the primary moral choices are "bad" and "worse." Lawless shines when it fills the screen with turpitude, not romance.