Lawless, director John Hillcoat's follow-up to the Cormac McCarthy adaptation The Road, may be little more than a testosterone-damaged period melodrama. But on those limited terms, it's brutally effective. It's the latest in a fruitful collaboration between Hillcoat and singer-songwriter-turned-screenwriter Nick Cave, and their sensibilities sync up best when their bloody but sentimental outlaw drama about real-life Prohibition-era bootleggers traffics in heightened emotions, cornpone humor and over-the-top violence.
As in the last Cave/Hillcoat joint, The Proposition, domestic strife determines the emotional stakes in Lawless. Blood matters — a point that Tom Hardy's beefy bootlegger Forrest Bondurant drives home when his little brother Jack (played by Shia LaBoeuf) apologizes for losing Forrest's money. Lawless is at heart a clash of masculine wills — a manodrama, if you will — and yet its dearth of strong female characters is part of what keeps it from joining the ranks of classic gangster movies like Gun Crazy or Bonnie and Clyde.
When Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a crooked cop from Chicago, tries to get protection money from the Bondurants, the interloper brings out the contrast in the brothers: Jack tries to adapt to the shifting power hierarchy, while Forrest stubbornly sits and waits for an opening. Forrest, who believes the legend of his own invincibility, will get many occasions to strike back at Rakes. But the times are a-changing for the Bondurants, and that means the relatively meek Jack will soon inherit the earth.
That crude moral — the hour of the gun will give way to the day of the suit — is one of the many reasons why Lawless works best when the Bondurants advance the movie's ideas about civilization through doing, not talking. That's painfully evident in the movie's worst scenes, which have the otherwise inarticulate Forrest (whose speech elsewhere is punctuated with hiccups of "um") suddenly delivering thesis statements about knowing one's place in the world. Far better is the moment when Forrest chastises Jack with a present of a single shoe — the item he dropped making a drunken spectacle of himself before a preacher's comely daughter (Mia Wasikowska). It's an almost fatherly lesson in humility that speaks volumes about the brothers' bond — a sharp contrast to the teachings Rakes administers with brass knuckles.
If Hillcoat and Cave sketch the men with vicious zest and tellingly sleazy detail — you get a good idea of who Rakes is when you see the black woman he's sleeping with positioned on a newspaper on his hotel bed — the female characters get constantly short shrift. The skimpiest is former stripper Maggie (Jessica Chastain), Forrest's soiled-dove love interest, who's fleshed out with only a couple of interstitial scenes. Seated in front of her car's rear-view window or smoking in front of her vanity's mirror, she's merely an uncertain, forlorn decorative object — Forrest's very own security blanket.
That's indicative of Lawless' larger flaw. Lawless concentrates so intently on the self-mythologizing Bondurant brothers that everything else seems underdeveloped. The movie starts as a hardscrabble epic on the domestication of roughneck America — a mixed blessing that creates makeshift communities even as it replaces outlaw gangs with the ruthless efficiency of organized crime. But as the scope narrows to the Bondurant-Rakes feud, Lawless does little more than advance the notion that it takes a village to make and support local legends like the bootlegger heroes.
It's easy to see, however, why Hardy and Pearce eventually grab all the attention. In mutually showy turns, the actors have dynamic adversarial chemistry. Had there been more to Maggie, there might have been more substance to Lawless' revisionist interpretation of family as a modern tribalist group that now includes lovers and friends. What's left, though, is a blunt, potent, often exciting crime drama, as the movie's warring badass alpha males fight to the death for dominance — unaware that their days as top dog are coming to an end.
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