America’s torrid love affair with prohibition, which led to speakeasies and the rise of notorious, colorful mobsters, is a terrific starting point for any film. Unless we’re talking about John Hillcoat’s flaccid film Lawless, a boring spin on a prohibition legend. Taking place in the early 1930’s, Lawless follows the moonshining ways of the Bondurant brothers, three Virginian born boys that wipe their ass with the laws of the land. Leading these unlawful rascals is Forrest (Tom Hardy), a quiet man who has a reputation built on an impenetrable skin and mythological hearsay. Forrest’s ferocious stature casts a spell over Franklin County, leaving the authorities fearful of crossing this perceived giant. Living under the watchful eye of Forrest is Jack (Shia LaBeouf), a slick, ambitious young adult that wants a mobster’s glory without pulling the trigger. Jack’s desire for illegal celebrity often comes at the cost of his love life, where he is in pursuit of Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska), the daughter of a Baptist preacher.
Jack and Forrest are constantly at odds over the direction of their empire. Everything changes though when Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain) walks into the picture, captures Forrest’s heart, and indirectly leaves him incapacitated. Jack leaps in to action as his family business faces an assault from Special Deputy Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce), a corrupted Chicago cop determined to sniff out country bootleggers. Blood and tears flow as wild as the Bondurant’s hooch, but the story itself never captures the American epic it hopes to evoke. Grounding Hillcoat’s effort is a meandering script that introduces hollow subplots and vaguely drawn characters. Demonstrating this is the inclusion, or rather the exclusion, of a third Bondurant brother that does nothing but appear drunk and lazy, lacking any real dynamic within the construct of his rebellious family. Doubling the film’s character losses are vacant characters. Hardy’s Forrest wields nothing but grunts, where Chastain’s Maggie lacks a discernible voice until the third act. For as weak as the characters are, the film’s arc lacks any semblance of dramatic thrust. There are certainly scenes that sizzle, but the rest of the film leisurely moves about at a languid pace without generating a consistent flow.
Yet, the most inconspicuous aspect of Lawless is that it fails to provide an actual sense of scale. These Bondurant boys are aggressive bootleggers that use the expansive county lines as their playground, but the script, the direction, and everything else in between, makes Franklin County feel impish and insignificant. At times it’s as if the only people residing in Franklin County are the Bondurant boys and the handful of people they surround themselves with. There is a moment where Lawless takes a glance at the celebrity of mob life through Gary Oldman’s city bred gangster, Floyd Banner, and expands the film’s world by a few inches, but his character is only a device. Outside of the Bondurant family, any form of collateral damage from the boy’s hands is nonexistent, as is the significance for us to even hearing the story. What it all boils down to is that Lawless, albeit wonderfully shot, is the equivalent to watching two stubborn, snotty kids fighting on the playground. In the end, nobody cares who wins.