Combining moments of brutal and nasty violence with well-paced character-driven drama, John Hillcoat's latest effort tries to balance art house respectability with the visceral thrills of genre exploitation fare. Though it finds a comfortable middle ground early on, "Lawless" lacks just enough focus and direction to make it work as well as it should have.
Actors being under-utilised and subplots that don't really go anywhere are the kind of flaws that only detract rather than cripple, which means it still remains a quite enjoyable and skilfully crafted piece of prestige pulp entertainment. Featuring a couple of solid performances and a convincing period atmosphere, Hillcoat embraces the mobster film cliches and turns them into benefits rather than limitations.
He's aided by Nick Cave's script which balances the tonal shifts with a quiet confidence. Benoit Delhomme's cinematography, the sound design, a strong score and gritty production values recreate the period whilst adding an energy and immediacy to it that other films set in said period seem to miss.
Set in Prohibition-era Virginia, the story follows a trio of hillbilly bootlegger brothers as they struggle to both stay in business and stay alive as law enforcement steps up its efforts to shut down their trade. When it keeps to that basic premise, the film clicks as Hillcoat plays up the myths surrounding the brothers along with showcasing to us the extreme lengths they and their enemies will go to. He's a filmmaker who loves to give us characters who claim they abhor violence and yet underneath seem to have little issue indulging in bloodletting to unnecessary lengths.
The film's most memorable creation along these lines is Guy Pearce's oily special deputy Charlie Rakes. An over-groomed dandy with an utterly sadistic cruel streak, it's a role designed to be a touch larger than life but not so much as to be cartoonish. Pearce finds that level perfectly, nailing it with a coldly mesmerising turn just this side of camp. It's a distinct improvement on flamboyant villain roles by him in the likes of "Prometheus" or "The Count of Monte Cristo".
The rest of the cast aren't far behind, even though some of the supporting roles get shortchanged. Arguably the best work after Pearce is yet another excellent turn by Dane DeHaan as the crippled hooch creation whiz Cricket, the young actor disappearing into the role and earning our affection. Tom Hardy's laconic and dominant brother is a deceptively unassuming performance, and the actor nails his few key character moments - sliding between darkly comic and chillingly serious, all delivered in an understated style.
Shia LaBeouf is a real surprise as the younger brother, properly flexing his acting muscles in what feels like the first time in many years. It's also a role - earnest, ambitious, a little bit arrogant and cowardly - that he seems perfect for. Despite being little more than cameos, both Gary Oldman as gangster Floyd Banner and Noah Taylor as his enforcer are fun turns.
On the flip side, Jason Clarke is decidedly underserved as a character while the rest of the male supporting cast leave little impression. Mia Wasikowska's preacher's daughter and her innocent flirting with LaBeouf's character is a sweet little subplot, but it's dwelled on for only a few scant minutes which makes it feel very perfunctory. Jessica Chastain's stripper turned legit gets a little bit more to do, but not much. In fact she seems to be there mainly to serve as Hardy's love interest, bare her breasts and participate in a very brief and oddly handled rape subplot.
In terms of deeper meaning the film isn't quite sure what it's trying to say. The story itself kind of meanders in a distracted way before quickly realising it has to come to an end and rushes to the finish. Clocking in at a little under two hours, one wonders how much was trimmed either in the writing stage or in the editing room. Certainly you get the feeling that the overly judicious and sometimes awkward editing was a bit severe and the film would've worked much better had it had a good half-hour extra to breathe.