Based on a true story, Lawless has a dream team. Having worked together so successfully on their 'Aussie Western' The Proposition, director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave (yes, that one) have teamed up again, bringing Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Guy Pearce and Gary Oldman with a Tommy Gun together for a backwoods gangster movie. You'll notice that Shia LaBeouf is absent from the above list – more of him anon.
It's the Prohibition era and the legendary Forrest Bondurant (Hardy) is Mr Moonshine in Franklin County, Virginia. A lumbering, taciturn lynchpin who lets a knuckleduster do the talking, Forrest has, like all the self-employed, plenty of staff and red tape headaches. War veteran brother Howard (Clarke) has been gifted the muscle but is shorter on smarts; runt of the litter Jack (LaBeouf) has plenty of ambition but lacks his brothers' stomach for the fight and The Feds are getting mighty unhappy that Forrest is running Franklin County like his own personal fiefdom.
Enter Special Deputy Charles Rakes (Pearce), a black-gloved sadist brought down from Chicago to make Forrest obey – and not necessarily the law. Rakes' arrival coincides with young Jack getting notions about himself as a player and the appearance in town of a woman (Chastain) who's running from something. Forrest may just have to get a move on...
After Bane and Bronson, Tom Hardy completes a truly unholy trinity of hard men with his portrayal of Bondurant the elder, a colossus in a cardie who finds himself tested in the woods. His performance is equalled by Pearce as the truly chilling bad guy, but the biggest letdown with Lawless is the fact that there aren't more scenes involving the two of them, with Chastain's femme fatale stuck in the middle. Instead, the movie, based on the book The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, focuses too much on his real-life grandfather Jack's rocky road to manhood. As played by LaBeouf, Jack's just not as interesting as the others and while there was the opportunity to give him more weight and speed the movie up by including more scenes with Oldman as gangster/surrogate father figure Floyd Banner, the English legend has little more than a cameo here. Let's hope there's an hour-extra director's cut on DVD in a couple of months' time.
This beautifully shot and soundtracked (by Cave) tale of violence, sex, money, religion and burn-your-throat brew is still worth seeing, especially if you're a crime movie fan. But the fact that Lawless had all the ingredients to be a classic leaves something of a bitter aftertaste - just like a lot of homemade hooch.