Nestled at the foot of the Appalachian mountains is Franklin County, Virginia, home to a modest 30,000 people during the 1920s. At the height of America’s prohibition, this diminutive rural community was producing illegal booze on a vast scale. It was estimated that perhaps as much as 99% of the residents of the self-styled “Moonshine Capital Of The World” were involved in the illegal liquor trade in some way. It’s surprising, given America’s fondness for navel-gazing mythologising into its frontier past, it’s taken this long for Franklin’s story to be told: first in a book called The Wettest County In The World and now in Lawless, a half-decent film adaptation of that book, which details the tribulations between three hooch-cookin’ brothers and John Q Law’s attempt to stop them.
First, the good: it looks nice and the acting is great. Director John Hillcoat has assembled a fine ensemble (Shia LaBoeuf, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska) and there’s not a weak link among them. I particularly enjoyed Gary Oldman’s appearance in what basically amounts to a cameo: as big shot gangster Floyd Banner, his opening appearance provides the best scene of the film. He screeches into town, lets a million bullets from a tommy gun rip into an old Model T Ford (á la Bonnie & Clyde), chews a cocktail stick beneath a pencil moustache and winks, slyly. So cool are these brief thirty seconds, they all but confirm, if confirmation were really needed, that Gaz need only stick his head round the corner of a film set and the film is his.
Shia LaBoeuf is impressive too, continuing his World Tour Of Arthouse so as to atone for his heinous franchise crimes. (We will next be seeing Mr LaBoeuef having full sex with a lady in Lars Von Trier’s mad art bonkathon Nymphomaniac.) It takes guts and self-effacement for an A-lister to play, as one character names him, “the runt of the litter”, and he shows more commitment, grace and range in 90 minutes than he did in three Transformers films, boding sort-of positively for his burgeoning career as a ‘serious actor’.
And Lawless sure looks purdy, too, with a careful devotion to period and a consistently beautiful palette through Benoît Delhomme’s carefully trained lens. But Hillcoat, along with scribe/soundtracker Nick Cave, fall into the trap of many a neo-western, wrongly assuming that a pretty country vista and a wistful voiceover from good ol’ time boy are all the ingredients needed. In fact, they skittishly throw in another element: some Tarantino-esque try-not-to-look-away violence, which crops up now and then in an uneven, misplaced fashion.
It makes for a bumpy ride. Lawless shows occasional promise, but it is a film no smarter than its own bullish, red-blooded lead characters, grumbling along rather mindlessly like Tom Hardy’s apparently indestructible grunting moonshiner. Chalk it down to laziness, studio interference, inexperience, whatever, but this shoot-first, ask-questions-about-plot-and-character-later strategy doesn’t swing it with me. You need only observe how bluntly written the measly afterthought female characters are, or how Guy Pearce’s oil-slick villain bears cartoonish similarities to Dr Doom from Who Framed Roger Rabbit, to see what I’m talking about. As Prohibition-era yarns go, Lawless ain’t got nothing on Boardwalk Empire.