Expectations are murder. With a dynamite cast (do Tom Hardy and Jessica Chastain ever fuck up?), an iconic screenwriter in rocker Nick Cave and an Aussie director in John Hillcoat, who inspired worship for The Proposition, you assume a new classic. What you get is an ambitious try. As the summer dribbles to a close with formula pap, you could do worse.
Based on Matt Bondurant’s fact-based novel The Wettest County in the World, Lawless is a Prohibition crime drama about three brawling, bootlegging brothers in Franklin County, Virginia. Forrest (the amazing Hardy) is the stoic leader of this mountain bunch, his heart warmed by a reformed hooker, Maggie (Chastain, sublime). Brother Howard (Jason Clarke) is quicker to fl y o the handle. And Jack (Shia LaBeouf) is the kid who needs seasoning. Jack has a mad crush on Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), the preacher’s daughter, but bloodshed makes him woozy.
Jack toughens up fast when the bad guys arrive, including Chicago mobster Floyd Banner (a bang-up Gary Oldman) and Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce, slime personifi ed and best in this show). Much violence ensues, with Hillcoat staging the shootouts in high style with the invaluable aid of that poet of cinematography Benoît Delhomme. Lawless is a solid outlaw adventure, but you can feel it straining for a greatness that stays out of reach. There’s even a prologue and an epilogue, arty tropes signifying an attempt to make a Godfather-style epic out of these moonshine wars. Not happening.