“Lawless,” a Depression-era gangster saga where moonshiners shoot down Virginia back roads in high-speed jalopies and shoot up the backwoods with a passel of shooting irons, is a character study that puts its focus on its least sympathetic characters.
One is a callow hothead played by Shia LaBeouf whose shallowness is exceeded only by his arrogance. The other is a borderline psychotic city slicker lawman played by Guy Pearce with bizarrely shaven eyebrows and severely pomaded hair that sports a Grand Canyon-deep part. Both men overact up a storm. LaBeouf is by turns preening and petulant. Pearce snarls and sneers and masticates the scenery like a rabid wolverine.
Stranded in the middle of this festival of histrionics is Tom Hardy, playing the LaBeouf character’s taciturn older brother with a voice that’s a raspy rumble. He’s the brains of a trio of bootlegging siblings known as the Bondurants (Jason Clarke plays the third, a bad-tempered thug), and a moderating influence on his reckless kid brother. They’re semi-legends back there in the woods, men renowned for not backing down in the face of threats and intimidation. When Pearce’s hired-gun madman shows up on the scene, all belligerent and bullying and intent on shutting down their moonshine operation, conflict is as inevitable as the sunrise.
Stuck in the middle as well is a sultry redhead played by Jessica Chastain, who shows up in the sticks one day, trailing in an aura of mystery that intrigues the uncommunicative Hardy no end.
Directed by John Hillcoat and scripted by Nick Cave (based on a heavily fictionalized semibiographical book by Matt Bondurant, grandson of the character played by LaBeouf), “Lawless” never really coheres. Its violence is sporadic, and two of its most interesting characters — Hardy’s, and a charismatic gangster played by Gary Oldman — disappear from the story for long periods of time.
As a crime drama, “Lawless” is surprisingly listless. ‘Lawless’
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Guy Pearce, Gary Oldman
Director: John Hillcoat
Running time: 1:50
Rated: R; violence, language, nudity, sexual situations