Virginia, 1931: a time of good men, bad cops, pretty girls and a world turned as rotten as bad moonshine by poverty and prohibition. Cinema has been here many times before, of course, and director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave – who worked together on 2005’s ‘The Proposition’ – don’t much surprise with their bone-cracking tale of the bootlegging Bondurant brothers: Jack (Shia LaBeouf), Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke). In a rural backwater, the boys run up against mean cop Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce), an Al Capone-type from the Big Smoke (Gary Oldman) and two beautiful women (Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain).
Hillcoat and Cave’s decision to be liberal with the bloodletting and throat-cutting – knuckledusters in faces, testicles in jars – doesn’t stop their film from feeling a bit too pretty (likewise, Wasikowska and Chastain are perhaps too glossily beautiful as Jack and Forrest’s love interests). And this is not a nuanced tale. Where it has more to offer is in Benoît Delhomme’s photography – there are great pastoral shots – and a relaxed direction by Hillcoat that gives time to endearing performances and a strong sense of place. LaBeouf’s Jack is youthful and outgoing while Hardy offers the anti-charisma of a guy who’s been around the block and had his ribs broken a hundred times.
But there’s little in ‘Lawless’ – a more mainstream film than ‘The Proposition’ – to upset a romantic vision of the Bondurants. That’s surely because Cave’s script is based on a 2008 novel, ‘The Wettest County in the World’, by Matt Bondurant, grandson of one of the brothers. Hillcoat and Cave tell this tale from a perspective of blind fondness – like relatives eulogising their ancestors around the fireplace. It makes for an oddly comfy film considering the death and hurt at its core.