Although it’s shot in lovely, dusty shades of brown with splashes of Coca-Cola red, John Hillcoat’s Lawless is dead weight: listlessly classical and then bludgeoning. The bootlegger folk heroes are members of a Franklin County, Virginia, clan led by the beefy Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy), whose wide-eyed younger brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf) narrates and gets gruesomely beaten by the villain — corrupt Special Deputy Charles Rakes, played (appallingly) by Guy Pearce as a dandified bloodsucker and sexual pervert. When Pearce and Hardy face off, the film becomes Bad Day at Petticoat Junction: Uncle Joe Versus Dracula.
It must be admitted that Hardy’s Bondurant is more intelligible than his Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, which elicited choruses normally heard at senior matinees in Florida: “What did he say?” “Something about Batman.” “Marzipan?” Here, he’s phlegmatically phlegmy, given to emitting little grunts: “Hmmm … mmmm … mmmm … ” The line on Forrest in Franklin County is that he’s “invincible,” perhaps because he takes so much time before doing anything that most of his opponents give up. Jessica Chastain makes regular appearances in red lipstick and dresses that hug her curves, but she has to bare her breasts and slink on top of him to get any action. Forrest finally moves — slowly — after his throat is cut.
In Hillcoat’s overpraised Aussie Western, The Proposition, the audience was jolted awake by shots like the one in which half a native’s head is blown off in close-up. Here, the languor is broken by throat-cuttings, vicious pummelings, rape, and castration. The mixture of arthouse pacing and shocking gore seems to convince a lot of people that they’re seeing a mythic depiction of the outlaw way of existence. I saw a standard revenge picture played at half-speed.
Gary Oldman does his chameleon thing as gangster kingpin Floyd Banner and manages to be both menacing and avuncular — his five minutes are a treat. LaBeouf is good, too. A loose cannon in interviews, he makes an appealingly modest Jack, innocent without being dear, tongue-tied without “aw-shucks” mannerisms. He and Mia Wasikowska even sell the old courtship-of-the-preacher’s daughter routine: She’s prim with the devil in her eyes. Showing off his family’s stills is an odd idea for a first date, but Jack is proud that the Bondurants are making piles of dough at the height of the Depression, when moonshine has even more luster than usual. Hillcoat’s narrative is packaged like Dom Perignon, but it’s cruder than that rotgut.