Director John Hillcoat's ultra-violent drama plays like a hot, sweaty, delusional fever dream and is similarly fitful. It can be visceral and operatic, beautiful and brutal but also slow and overlong. The look and the sound of it are the most effective parts, and the most intrinsically tied: Singer-songwriter Nick Cave, a longtime friend and collaborator of fellow Australian Hillcoat (on The Proposition and The Road), wrote the script and co-wrote the score, so there's a peculiar kind of dark flavor, humor and musicality to the cadence of the dialogue. No one bursts into song, but you suspect they might and sometimes hope they would.
Lawless is based on The Wettest County in the World, Matt Bondurant's fictional tale of his grandfather, Jack, and his brothers, moonshine masters who kept the Virginia hills good n' liquored up during Prohibition. The eldest, Howard (Clarke), is a volatile and frequently inebriated veteran of the first World War. The middle brother, Forrest (Hardy), is the quietly commanding leader of both the business and the family. And then there's Jack (LaBeouf), the youngest who's eager to prove himself. He's the most ambitious, which makes him the most dangerous.
The Bondurant boys find their tidy little operation threatened when a corrupt Chicago lawman named Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) swoops in to shut them down. He's as nasty as he is nattily dressed, and Pearce once again seems to relish playing this type of precise villain. Also entering the brothers' lives, seemingly because the story needed some sort of female figure, are two very different women. Maggie (Jessica Chastain) arrives out of nowhere one day from The Big City with a Secret Past and immediately starts functioning as both the waitress at the brothers' restaurant/headquarters and Forrest's obligatory love interest. Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) is the modest and pious daughter of the town's preacher who catches Jack's eye - which makes no sense, given that he's a wannabe gangster with flashy tastes.
Lawless allows neither of these fine, versatile actresses to display what they can do fully. It is mainly about the men, and the primal ways in which they survive and seek revenge. Yet it also squanders the formidable presence of Gary Oldman in just a few scenes as the big-city mobster who Jack aspires to be like one day. He is gone for large, inexplicable chunks of time, and he is sorely missed.
Still, there is Hardy, who is always hulking and intense and impossible to stop watching. Sure, his accent is a little thick and folksy but he seems to get the melody that exists within the script - and at least you can understand him better here than you could when he had that contraption strapped to his face to play Bane in "The Dark Knight Rises." As LaBeouf continues efforting to show he's a grown-up now and can do serious character work, Hardy shows up and simply dominates.
Lawless, a Weinstein Co. release, is rated R for strong bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity.
Running time: 110 minutes
Rating: Two and a half stars out of four