There’s a have-your-cake-and-eat-it quality about tales of outlaws at the end of their crooked road. We get the atavistic thrill of identifying with the powerful men committing murder, mayhem and violent robbery, then the pious satisfaction of seeing them punished for their sins.
Lawless, a powerhouse about the rise and fall of a moonshine dynasty, has a good deal of that double-dip appeal. But because it’s historical fiction inspired by the real experiences of Depression-era roughnecks, justice isn’t meted out in pat, preordained ways.
The Bondurant Boys were fearsome roughneck moonshiners who ran liquor through Franklin County, Va., during Prohibition. Their operation was surprisingly open: They delivered home brew from the back of flatbed pickups. Their tavern didn’t operate behind peepholes and bolted doors, but welcomed customers as casually as a restaurant.
The characters carry themselves like mythic characters from a folk song. Their story demands a heady mix of authenticity and artifice, violence and lyricism. Australian director John Hillcoat (of the savage outback Western The Proposition and Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic The Road) does it justice.
Shia LaBoeuf plays young Jack Bondurant with more conviction and skill than we have seen before. He’s lived too long in the shadow of his middle brother, protective yet lethal Forrest (Tom Hardy), and unstable eldest, Howard (Jason Clarke). With a reckless ambition barely redeemed by his intelligence, Jack pushes for bigger stills, faster cars and alliances with organized crime.
Gary Oldman brings a slick swagger to his brief turn as a Chicago kingpin with a flair for the Tommy gun. The story’s real villain is a lawman, Special Deputy Charlie Rakes, a sadistic clotheshorse assigned to crush the Appalachian mavericks because they’re averse to paying protection money. With his hair dyed unnatural ebony and his eyebrows shaved, Guy Pearce has the look of a foppish ghoul. Beating and torturing his victims, but careful to keep the gore off his immaculate suits, Rakes is a vivid nightmare.
There are strong women’s roles, a rarity in yarns this masculine. Jessica Chastain plays a battle-weary burlesque dancer who takes a job at the Bondurants’ tavern hoping to escape big-city mobsters, only to find herself in a bubbling cauldron of backwoods criminality. Seeking a protector, she sets her sights on powerful, taciturn Forrest, an arrangement that leads to some ironic reversals and a dash of much-needed humor. Mia Wasikowska is captivating as a preacher’s adventurous daughter who catches Jack’s eye and spurs him to ever more dangerous flights of attention-seeking.
Lawless is gripping, muscular work, though a bit too rich. Colorful minor characters fight for their turn in every sequence. The standouts include Dane DeHaan as Jack’s boy-scientist sidekick, Noah Taylor as Oldman’s henchman and screenwriter/ punk rocker Nick Cave as a short-lived bootlegger. Hillcoat provides bruising action, solid performances and local color, but the story shifts focus too often to build the headlong momentum it deserves.