Moonshine, machismo and rivers of gore make for a heady brew in “Lawless,” Australian helmer John Hillcoat’s stylishly assembled Prohibition-era gangster pic, and his second American-set film after 2009’s post-apocalyptic ramble “The Road.” Redolent of Hillcoat’s previous collaborations with musician-screenwriter Nick Cave, this classy genre piece doesn’t quite leave an emotional burn in the gut the way “The Proposition” did, but for those with a strong stomach for onscreen violence, it will hit the spot. The Weinstein Co. rolls out the barrel this fall.
It’s 1931, two years shy of the repeal of Prohibition, and the prolific liquor production in Franklin County, Va., has earned it the sobriquet “the wettest county in the world.” That’s also the title of the semi-fictional 2009 source book by Matt Bondurant, chronicling the legendary exploits of his grandfather Jack and two great-uncles, Forrest and Howard.
A close-knit family after the Spanish flu epidemic killed off their parents and nearly took Forrest two years back, the three “difficult to kill” brothers run a deep-woods restaurant/feed store/gas station that serves as a front for their real business, distributing cases of hooch around the area. Bull-necked, basso-voiced middle son Forrest (Tom Hardy) is the brains of the operation, while shell-shocked, dipsomaniac war vet Howard (Jason Clarke) rides shotgun as backup muscle. As the youngest and least given to stabbing and beating people, Jack (Shia LaBeouf) is usually stuck in the role of driver or lookout, but longs to win his brothers’ respect.
After years of keeping the local law safely in their pockets, the Bondurant boys find their apple-brandy cart upset when special deputy Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce) arrives in town from Chicago to crack down on the local trade. Of all the colorful characters the protean and ever-welcome Pearce has played, Rakes may be his most baroque creation yet: A fastidious dandy with a taste for dove-gray gloves, invisible eyebrows and hair ruthlessly parted and slicked back to make him look like Dagwood on steroids, Rakes is a total psychopath, particularly prone to violence when anyone needles his sore spot and dares to call him a nancy.
Early on in the proceedings, Rakes gives Jack a major ass-whupping, and the brothers vow revenge. The tit-for-tat tactical strikes between the two sides gradually escalate, doled out in regular screenwriting beats. One of the worst sees two of Rakes men slitting Forrest’s throat (miraculously, he survives) and raping Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain), a former Chicago fan dancer who’s now working as a waitress at the brothers’ station in order to escape some never-specified problems up north.
Cave’s adaptation doesn’t do an entirely satisfying job of servicing all the characters and storylines. Howard isn’t much more than a ghostly, civil presence throughout, and the film rather criminally underuses Gary Oldman as notorious gangster Floyd Banner, who gets a fabulous entrance but then is more or less forgotten. One is reminded that “Boardwalk Empire” has mined similar territory already, but with the luxury of 26 hours of television at its disposal to develop its characters.
The love stories — between Forrest and Maggie, and between Jack and pixie-ish church girl Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) — provide some sweet respite between bouts of bloodshed, but the women aren’t integral to the story. Fortunately, the actresses have enough charisma, as well as two of the finest complexions in the biz, to stand up to the strong male cast.
Technical package is faultless, from Benoit Delhomme’s painterly, brown-hued lensing on the new Arri Alexa digital camera and Dylan Tichenor’s fluid editing to Chris Kennedy’s finely textured production design. Particularly worthy of note is the subtlety of Margot Wilson’s costumes; the mint-colored frock Chastain gets to wear for her entrance is cut to period specs yet right on trend for 2012, and putting Forrest in a wheat-colored cardigan to give him a professorial, almost foppish air is a small stroke of genius.
Cherry on top is an inventive score composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis and performed by the Bootleggers, a lineup that includes Bad Seed Martyn Casey and Groove Armada’s George Vjestic; together they deliver an insinuating hillbilly-punk sound that’s neither period pastiche nor anachronism, but something deliciously other. A cover of Lou Reed’s “White Light/White Heat,” sung by bluegrass singer Ralph Stanley, reps one of several highlights. Integrated seamlessly with the sound design and editing, the music feels of a piece with the film’s impressive total effect.