The difference between the Bondurant boys is in their eyes. Two of them are taciturn, albeit for different reasons, and the youngest looks markedly softer. Lawless, the new Prohibition-era thriller from John Hillcoat and Nick Cave, is the story of how the youngest grew to resemble his other brothers more closely. It is a handsomely told story, with bouts of extreme violence and peculiar humor, although its numerous problems are unusually vexing.
Jack (Shia LaBeouf) is the youngest Bondurant, and he wants to be taken seriously. His older brothers are harder men: Forrest (Tom Hardy) is all muscle and appears to be in pain whenever he’s forced to speak. The Great War shaped Howard (Jason Clarke), and now he drinks more than he probably should. They run a respectable moonshine business, handing out mason jars to nearby speakeasies, as well as their neighbors. Then Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), the law man from Chicago, comes to town and demands payment for looking the other way. Forrest refuses, and begins an all-out war against the law and his competition. Jack, enterprising lad he is, figures out a way to sell more illegal liquor than ever before, which draws more unwanted attention to his family.
As a screenplay, Lawless suffers from bizarre structural problems. The rise/fall plot arc typically lasts for the plurality of a film; here it is squished together at the end, leaving an overlong opening section. There are entire scenes that serve no purpose, except to establish the bad characters as really bad. In a protracted sequence, Charlie gives Jack a severe beating. He hits him with a shotgun, and beats him until his immaculate gloves are ruddy. Visceral stuff like this may be Hillcoat’s bread and butter, yet it’s so dramatically inert that its severity is lost.
Two listless romances offer a reprieve from the violence, which is handsomely shot and appropriately severe. Forrest takes up with Maggie (Jessica Chastain), his establishment’s new bartender, and Jack meets Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), a minister’s daughter. The only surprise regarding these sub-plots is the degree to which Nick Cave made them so ordinary. They all look the part – Hardy and LaBeouf were well-cast – yet their stilted dialogue gives few favors. The only scenes that pop are the ones with Pearce’s character. He’s a deliberately loathsome monster whose camp is only matched by his terrifying haircut. Leaving the theater, I wondered how much care went into a hair part that is, no mincing words, truly disturbing.
There are two other actors in Lawless I haven’t mentioned yet. Gary Oldman plays Floyd Banner, an important gangster, and Noah Taylor is his deputy. Together they maybe have twenty lines in the entire film, which leaves me wondering a) why Hillcoat even included them in the first place, and b) what was left on the cutting room floor. With its lengthy coda and unexpected bouts of humor, Lawless unfolds more like a yarn, not a taut gangster picture. That particular brand of quirkiness works from scene to scene, but falls apart as a larger narrative. Give me tight plotting over a meandering structure any day.