"It's not violence that sets a man apart," says one bootlegging brother to another in Lawless, filmmaker John Hillcoat's Prohibition-era tale of moonshine, flamboyant gangsters and crooked cops. "It's the distance he's willing to go." While not entirely honest — Lawless spends nearly two hours lurching from one bullet-ridden bout of extreme violence to the next — this early bit of dialogue at least underscores the film's earnest attempts at injecting some meaning into its mayhem. Lawless brings some strong elements to the proceedings but never quite pulls them together into a satisfying film.
Working behind the scenes is post-punk icon Nick Cave, a friend of director Hillcoat since their early days at art school. Cave wrote the screenplay (as he did for Hillcoat's similarly violent neo-Western, The Proposition) and crafted a soundtrack strong enough to carry a film. Cave and longtime musical partner Warren Ellis assembled a band called the Bootleggers to reimagine songs by John Lee Hooker, Link Wray and other greats in the roots-music styles of the 1930s. Two distinct covers of the Velvet Underground's classic "White Light/White Heat" — including one by 85-year-old bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley — transform the Velvets' noisy ode to illicit stimulants into a down-home moonshine anthem. Cave also makes a brief appearance as a gangster who looks comically rock-star scrawny alongside strapping Hollywood actors like Tom Hardy (who played the villain Bane in The Dark Knight Rises).
Lawless' original source material holds similar appeal. Cave based his screenplay on the acclaimed historical novel The Wettest County in the World, for which author Matt Bondurant fictionalized decades of family lore to tell the true story of his own real-life grandfather and grand-uncles, the Bondurant brothers (played by Hardy, Shia LaBeouf and Jason Clarke). The Bondurants ran a highly successful bootlegging business in the Virginia hill country that was eventually challenged by mobsters and lawmen from Chicago with predictably gory results.
While the rural setting allows Hillcoat the chance to blend broad strokes from Westerns and early gangster movies, the trials of youngest brother Jack Bondurant (LaBeouf) eventually become the focus of the film. But Jack's journey from sensitive kid to hardened grown-up willing to stand up to the Chicago boys doesn't ring true, and Lawless finally becomes the kind of movie that treats the style in which characters die on screen as the most important thing it has to offer.
Guy Pearce makes a memorably creepy villain, and Gary Oldman drips charisma as a legendary Chicago gangster. Jessica Chastain (The Help) and Mia Wasikowska (The Kids Are All Right) work some magic as love interests for two of the Bondurants, especially given their minimal dialogue and fleeting screen time. But there's nothing the strong cast can do to stop the movie from adding up to something less than the sum of its parts. — KEN KORMAN