2012, R, 115 min. Directed by John Hillcoat. Starring Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Dane DeHaan.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 31, 2012

Although it slides down easily, there’s very little kick to this moonshining picture. Unlike the last time director John Hillcoat combined forces with musician and now-screenwriter Nick Cave to make the dark, brooding Australian Western, The Proposition, their pairing in Lawless results in a film that is fairly lifeless. Set in the waning years of Prohibition in the early 1930s, Lawless is based on the book, The Wettest County in the World, by Matt Bondurant, a descendant of the story’s central figures. The Bondurant brothers – Howard (Clarke), Forrest (Hardy), and Jack (LaBeouf) – make and distribute the best moonshine in Franklin County, Va., an outpost of Appalachia where the hills burn bright with outlawed stills. Forrest is their leader, a hulk who pockets his brass knuckles in his signature cardigan; Howard is their enforcer and a drunk whose screen time is paltry in comparison with his brothers; and Jack is the youngest, but wants to be more of a player than just the team’s driver. Jack receives the lion’s share of the story’s attention, although he seems the least worthy of the notice.

Lawless caters to LaBeouf’s stardom with a focus on young Jack’s schemes to increase his importance within the gang. Even though most of Jack’s ploys backfire and cause the Bondurants more strife, the character faces no consequences, making him seem more like a narrative engine than a real person. The sketchiness of the female characters is even more evident, although to their credit, Chastain and Wasikowska as Forrest and Jack’s love interests, respectively, carve strong impressions nevertheless. As the big-city bootlegger Floyd Banner, Oldman ekes the most from barely more than a few minutes of screen time, cutting decisively through the film’s overall listlessness. But it’s Pearce’s flamboyant performance as the Chicago lawman Charlie Rakes that becomes the film’s most memorable turn. The gloved, bowtie-wearing special agent is a fascinating contradiction: a priggish thug who washes away his nastiness and violence with sweet-smelling bath salts and pomades. The character is such an easy target as a hateful villain that the Bondurants’ illegal activities seem heroic by contrast.

Lawless is abundantly violent, with things like a slit throat and a tar-and-feathering adding more exotic grisliness to an already bloody story. More interesting is the film’s music, helmed by screenwriter Cave and bandmate Warren Ellis. They score and perform the film’s music as the Bootleggers, using unusually modern compositions by the likes of the Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart, Townes Van Zandt, and Link Wray, backed by twangy bluegrass sounds. Lawless never fully comes together as a whole but it is quite intriguing in spots.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Lawless
**Updated**: 'Wettest County' Scribe Comes to Town
**Updated**: 'Wettest County' Scribe Comes to Town
Willie Nelson joins Matt Bondurant at film sneak on new date

Kimberley Jones, Aug. 16, 2012

More John Hillcoat Films
Triple 9
Grimy policier is an electrifying muddle with killer cast

Steve Davis, Feb. 26, 2016

The Road
Cormac McCarthy's bleak, end-of-days novel survives the transition to the screen with remarkable veracity.

Marc Savlov, Nov. 27, 2009

More by Marjorie Baumgarten
SXSW Film Review: The Greatest Hits
SXSW Film Review: The Greatest Hits
Love means never having to flip to the B side

March 16, 2024

SXSW Film Review: The Uninvited
SXSW Film Review: The Uninvited
A Hollywood garden party unearths certain truths

March 12, 2024


Lawless, John Hillcoat, Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Dane DeHaan

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle