Lawless deserves some sort of prize for bucking trends. While most of the movie industry devotes itself to spies and superheroes, John Hillcoat's true-crime costumer time-travels back to the Great Depression with a violent family of Virginia moonshiners battling revenuers and rival bootleggers. Its heart is basically in the right place, but it collapses under its own weight.
Meet the Bondurant Brothers of Blackwater Station: surly Howard (Jason Clarke), baby brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf), and stolid Forrest, leader of the clan, played by Tom Hardy from The Dark Knight Rises and Warrior. Their stills make the hooch that fuels Prohibition America, but crooked Fed Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce, corny and obvious) and local mobster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman, enjoying himself) reckon differently, and the hills come alive with the sounds of screams and gunfire. The mood is like the cinematography: gloomy shades of brown. Regardless, LaBeouf's carefully drawn Jack takes the acting honors, especially when paired with preacher's daughter Bertha (Mia Wasikowska). Jessica Chastain's hard-luck Maggie seems superfluous.
Wrangling this potentially excellent, heavily Oz and Brit cast is director Hillcoat, whose 2005 Down Under western The Proposition set the pace for joyless carnage — until now. The music track assembled by gloom-rocker Nick Cave encapsulates Lawless' conundrum: It wants the ruthless brutality of 1931, but with the double-anachronistic wallop of bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley and singer Mark Lanegan updating/backdating The Velvet Underground's 1968 speed-freak anthem "White Light/White Heat" as a high-lonesome mountain moan. Wonder what they could have done with George Jones' song "White Lightnin'"? Tantalizing, all the way down the line.
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