Starring Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy. Written by Nick Cave from the novel by Matt Bondurant. Directed by John Hillcoat. 14A. 115 min. Opens Aug. 29.
The only honest image in Lawless is of two roosters squawking at each other with their chests puffed out. It reflects the B.S. macho M.O. that writer Nick Cave and director John Hillcoat bring to their adaptation of Matt Bondurant’s 2008 book, The Wettest County in the World. Its tale of three fraternal Virginian shit-kickers driving homemade booze across state lines during Prohibition has a basis in fact—Bondurant is the grandson of one of the main characters—but Cave and Hillcoat are more interested in myth-making than verisimilitude.
This is not a problem in and of itself: The Prohibition era has been dramatized in highly stylized ways countless times before, sometimes to very entertaining effect. But by going for the same stark, brutalist vibe that distinguished their previous collaborations, The Proposition and Ghosts…of the Civil Dead, Cave and Hillcoat at times literally bleed the tall-tale fun out of the material and replace it with grotesquerie. Guy Pearce’s performance as the demonic Chicago lawman who has decamped to Franklin, Virginia to take a piece of the rum-running action is an even more demented version of Michael Shannon’s similar character on Boardwalk Empire.
As for the brothers, themselves, Shia LaBeouf is ideally cast as the snivelling poseur, Jack Bondurant—except the film eventually requires his runty character to assume a heroic bearing (which LaBeouf can’t handle). As his reputedly indestructible brother, Forrest, Tom Hardy basically does Bane again (physically menacing, garbled dialogue). Meanwhile, Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska are wasted as the sort of threadbare female archetypes that populate some of Cave’s worse songs. Cave may be a great murder balladeer, but there’s a difference between a three-minute song and a two-hour movie, and Lawless’s mix of stock dialogue, overweening metaphors (Wasikowska cradles a baby deer that symbolizes innocence), and intently repulsive violence gets old really fast.