Australian-born filmmaker John Hillcoat is no stranger to the dingy, lived-in menace lurking in haunted landscapes or to hard men who’ve seen a lot. They are the places and people who populate his films, including the fine Down Under western “The Proposition” and the less-powerful but still interesting adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel “The Road.”
Unfortunately, his latest, the Depression-era gangster tale “Lawless,” turns the Virginia hills of the early 1930s into just another backdrop for a clockwork succession of perfunctorily filmed showdowns and shootouts.
For a movie about moonshine, something so imaginatively made, mood-altering and once violently sought-after, it goes down way too blandly.
It’s 1931, and the Bondurant brothers — steely survivor Forrest (Tom Hardy), rowdy war vet Howard (Jason Clarke) and wide-eyed youngest sib Jack (Shia LaBeouf) — are Franklin County, Va., entrepreneurs comfortably riding out the Depression by selling, and plying accommodating authorities with, their special brand of white lightning.
The brothers have a local reputation for being invincible and they will ruthlessly protect their turf. Still, the trio is unprepared for the tweaked brand of bloody pushback embodied in corrupt Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a foppish, bow-tie-wearing lawman fresh from wherever Chicago grows psychos.
Pearce’s gloved, pomaded and snarling entrance instantly signals a movie divorced from reality, despite the fact that it’s based on Matt Bondurant’s fictionalized account of his real-life moonshining ancestors, “The Wettest County in the World.” “Lawless” is fueled instead by empty mythmaking, and escalating levels of meanness and retribution.
In the screenplay written by Nick Cave (who also penned “The Proposition”), Rakes is a scale-tipping cheat designed to put viewers instantly on the side of law-breaking toughs, their code of honor as corny as the region’s whiskey. The brothers, though, seem more like actors sharing top billing than actual blood relations.
LaBeouf offers up the same scrappy youngster trying to prove himself he’s played before, but this time, he speaks with an unintelligible twang. His Jack seems miles away from Clarke’s flinty smile and bearish mien. And neither seems to complement Hardy’s quiet Forrest, who sports sweaters and brass knuckles on his bruiser’s frame.
Though rarely anything but a magnetic presence, Hardy nonetheless delivers Cave’s occasionally ridiculous bromides (“We control the fear”) in an off-putting mountain growl that sounds as if it’s being thrown to him from a ventriloquist.
Jessica Chastain, assigned to erotically lure Forrest from his battle-tough shell, and Mia Wasikowska, playing a flirty preacher’s daughter acquiring a taste for wannabe gangster Jack, are both woefully under used.
Faring better is the sideline treat of Gary Oldman as a slick city mobster young Jack wants to emulate. The veteran actor’s dangerously charming way with authoritative grit and explosive brutality easily suggests the nervy entertainment “Lawless” might have been.
Ultimately, the movie, which had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival this year, is after something rough but sweet. Yet it also wants to be instantly vintage too — a ready-made myth, its backwoods criminals as tall as the surrounding pines — and there it especially falls short.
Benoit Delhomme’s flattened, monochromatic cinematography may be appropriate for a story of earthy antiheroes, but the washed-out look quickly grows monotonous as the characters’ interactions turn increasingly violent, one horrific act spurring another until the screen is awash in muted blood.
Mayhem never tasted more like medicine.
MPAA rating: R for strong bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Playing: In general release