John Hillcoat’s lacklustre adaptation of Matt Bondurant’s “The Wettest County,” re-titled Lawless boasts an impressive cast but fails to achieve any sense of cohesion in a film that is as raggedy as the clothes of the hillbilly moonshiners it depicts.
Set in the depths of Virginia, the Bondurant brothers Forrest (Tom Hardy), Jack (Shia LaBeouf) and Howard (Jason Clarke) make their living by running a profitable moonshine outfit during the years of prohibition. When the corrupt local governor brings in a psychopathic special agent, Charles Rake, played by a mincing and menacing Guy Pearce, to clean up the county the three brothers suddenly find themselves alone and under threat when they refuse to pay the protection racket. The youngest brother Jack, determined to show that he has ‘grit,’ decides to go in with local mobster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) all in an attempt to impress the local preacher’s daughter Bertha (Mia Wasikowska).
The wonderful ensemble cast might make for enjoyable viewing in their individual roles but Hillcoat has failed to generate the same level of atmosphere as his previous work, The Road (2009). There are multiple scenes which, taken on their own, provide great entertainment but never gel together to form an interesting, or entertaining narrative. Peppered with visceral violence there are plenty of shocking moments juxtaposed with the moments of humour (including the cantankerous mumbling from Tom Hardy).
Lawless betrays a seemingly troubled production history. Neither a gangster film nor a drama, it simply never knows who it is appealing to or what it is trying to do. This makes for painful viewing where one minute we are treated to a love story, (two in fact where both Chastain and Wasikowska are disappointingly underused) which adds nothing to the overall narrative, and next to a rise and fall gangster story. Causing further problems is the ill fitting soundtrack that attempts to evoke the spirit of the age but is so ill-timed that it draws audiences out of the action.
Singer/songwriter Nick Cave is responsible for the screenplay that attempts to cram in as many stories and themes as it can. Stories are picked up and then casually dropped in an incredibly frustrating manner, made worse but the hugely saccharine and problematic ending. Lawless is neither thrilling enough nor entertaining enough with far too much going on that is underdeveloped.
Joe awarded Lawless two torches of truth.