By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — If Lawless were flawless, it would stop reminding us so directly of other, better films of similar style or tone or subject matter.
But, alas, it’s a long way from.
So, as we watch this Prohibition-era crime drama, we find ourselves drawing unflattering comparisons to Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather, The Untouchables, and Public Enemy that render this outing a glorified shoot-em-up.
Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, and Jason Clarke play real-life bootleggers, the infamously anti-heroic Bondurant brothers, hillbillies who brew and smuggle moonshine in Franklin County, Va., distilling and distributing their illegal whiskey at the height of Prohibition, during the early 1930s.
Hardy is the middle brother, taciturn and reputedly indestructible. Clarke is the oldest, a relatively levelheaded soldier returned from the First World War.
And LaBeouf, who also serves as narrator, is the callow youngest, wanting desperately to be taken seriously not only by his brothers but by the rest of the world as well.
The Bondurants are trying to protect their flourishing operation from the relentless, sadistic, puritanical, and corrupt Chicago G-man played by Guy Pearce, so intent on closing them down (and, hopefully, killing them in the process).
Meanwhile, they’re also up against big-time mobster and customer Floyd Banner, also from Chicago, played by Gary Oldman.
Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska, as the romantic interests of two of the brothers, are part of the intriguingly international English-speaking cast of Yankees, Aussies, and Brits who are hogtied by a project that seems to have expended a lot more energy on the handsomeness of its design, the natural beauty of the Virginia mountains, and the startling aesthetics of its staged combat than on the three-dimensionality of its people or the resonance of its themes of family, loyalty, survival, and desperation in the wake of a broken economy.
Australian director John Hillcoat (The Proposition, The Road) worked from a Nick Cave (the musician) screenplay that was adapted from Matt Bondurant’s 2008 historical novel, The Wettest County in the World (the film’s original title), a fictionalized account of the moonshine wars that the author’s grandfather and great-uncles were involved in during Prohibition.
But we resist because the movie strives too stiffly and self-consciously to present the legendary instead of letting the myth, such as it is, emerge naturally from the based-on-reality material. We never get lost in the material. Instead, we observe, watching the actors act and the vehicles move and the guns blaze.
There are things to admire along the way, but it’s always from a distance.
It is, then, a slim story that never quite compels, grappling without really gripping.
As for the frequent bursts of sudden and graphic violence, they do serve to raise the energy level intermittently. But they seem designed to distract from the film’s otherwise undernourished, undistinguished, and even disjointed narrative and thinly delineated array of characters.
So we’ll prohibit 2 stars out of 4 for a movie that’s interesting but difficult to warm up to. Epic in scope but also epically unengaging, Lawless leaves us thawless.