Lawless not to be a great movie; but it isn't. It's a good movie, and that in and of itself is nothing to sniff at; but not a great one, not like it should be. The pedigree is right: director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave reuniting, seven years after the magnificent Aussie Western The Proposition, to tell another story of life in a semi-mythic time, when even the "good" people had to resort to incredible, loathsome violence to get by, leading us into a world so corroded that we might well wonder whether it's even worth hoping for it to be saved. It's been enacted by, on paper, one of the best casts of 2012 (outside of Shia LaBeouf), and that cast has more than lived up to what we demand of them (including LaBeouf, who has never been this good, in anything, ever). It should roar of the screen with fire and intensity, and it does not: a hugely promising opening quarter, and an apocalyptically charged final shoot-out, both admirably rise up to that level, but a great long chunk of the second act simply sits there, blinking, moving in no particular direction at all.
Adapted from Matt Bondurant's largely non-fictional account of his own grand-uncles, The Wettest County in the World - a vastly superior title to Lawless, any way you cut it - the film takes place over something like a period of years during Prohibition, in Franklin County, Virginia, where the three Bondurant brothers - Howard (Jason Clarke), Forrest (Tom Hardy), and Jack (LaBeouf) - operate one of the biggest moonshine operations in what declares itself to be the nation's single biggest alcohol-producing county. Life is good for the Bondurant boys, until darkness comes in the form of the Chicago gangsters, no longer content simply to buy Franklin County hooch, and now anxious to muscle in on the selling of it as well; and this is to be enforced by the brutal figure of Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a dirty cop who promises great pain to all those who try to fight for their own independent way of life. Like the Bondurants, for example.
So begins an Epic Struggle, with the bootleggers on one side, making ever more money as Jack's cunning and ambition (cultivated to overcome his physical weakness) find new ways to produce and sell moonshine, and as he and Forrest begin to court new women, preacher's daughter Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) and Chicago expatriate Maggie (Jessica Chastain); on the other, the local cops, under the increasingly barbarous thumb of the devilish Rakes. Good things and bad things happen over the course of months, until there is a Final Confrontation.
If that sounds sort of foggy: it is. The dominant mode of Cave's screenplay for The Proposition was of self-conscious mythology, with details purposefully failing to come into focus, and that approach is potent and exciting for a movie that has just a handful of important characters and covers about a week. Lawless involves significantly more people and a hell of a lot more scale, trying to capture the texture of a whole culture over the course of something like a decade, and Cave's use of the same general tone that worked so well in The Proposition is disastrously off; characters and plot threads simply wander in and then wander off when nothing is done with them, and the middle hour is constructed of something more like mini-arcs that take place in order, without ever building up to anything. The excellence of the concluding sequence gives the illusion that the film is a cohesive whole; but an illusion is all this is.
Hillcoat compounds this with somewhat unfocused direction that relies on too much obvious shorthand; one especially galling moment pairs shots of Jack in his sexy new car with his pretty new girl, with a herd of wild horses galloping through an empty field, because that's not a clumsy, cliché way of expressing "sense of freedom" visually. Even when it doesn't hit that level of hammy obviousness, Lawless feels awfully typical, with none of the poetics of The Proposition. Even at the most basic level of cinematography, this film is rather ordinary, though shot, as was The Proposition, by Benoît Delhomme; it has a certain bleached-out flatness that expresses both the scenario's nihilism and the semi-remote 1920s setting, but does neither of them with the same awe-inspring sense of scorched-earth brightness of the best shots in The Proposition.
Forgive me if it seems like all I want to do is compare two movies: Lawless works in such a similar register, to such lesser effect, that it's hard not to. Both films are perhaps most notable for their unpleasant violence, and it's deployed the same way, but without a stronger movie surrounding that violence, it just comes off as dark and mean for its own sake in Lawless, and that is really the key to all the rest of it: the parts that don't work are harsh and unpleasant.
"The parts that don't work". I want to stress that, because when all is said and done, while enough doesn't work in Lawless that all I can think of, over and over, is, "you're better off just sticking with The Proposition," quite a lot of it is actually quite good. The design team's re-creation of 1920s Virginia is nothing short of sublime, giving us a world that feels incredibly rich and real and lived-in, grounding the story as it plays out; and the costume design by Margot Wilson goes another step above and beyond simple realism, into the realm of character creation beyond what the actors and script are thinking about (the first shot of Chastain in a smart dress, in the midst of so many down-home folk, is the first time I've literally gasped at costume since... God, I don't even know, Atonement?). The score that Nick Cave and Warren Ellis put together is subtle and gloomy in all the right ways, and the acting is sensational: it would be very nice if Chastain and Wasikowska had something (or anything) to do, but the cast is top-to-bottom great, with Pearce's twitch, inordinately mannered melodramatic villain standing apart from the rest in just the right ways, Gary Oldman's cameo as gangster Floyd Banner so perfectly conceived that it makes me weep there's not more of him, and Hardy gives, unquestionably, the best performance of his career since Bronson in 2008, as a furious thug who keeps himself tightly reined in, burying all his rage beneath mumbles and intense stares, and then burying feelings like affection, fear, and joy even farther beneath that rage. It's complex and amazingly subtle, and if Lawless was a complete shitpile outside of Hardy, it would still be worth watching, just for him. As it is not a shitpile, he's still the best thing about the feature: that one intense X-factor that pushes the movie over from "the good and bad are in a battle for this movie's soul" to "this is a good movie with problems". Which it is, a good movie with problems. Big ones. But it's got just enough of the grubby spirit of the great gangster pictures of old that it has more going for it than just a few top-notch performances and some well-placed costumes.