Just’a good old boys. Never meaning no harm. Beats all you never saw, been in trouble with the law since the day they was born.
Sure, those are the opening lyrics to the Dukes of Hazzard theme song, but they apply just as well to the Bondurant boys at the center of John Hillcoat’s new film Lawless, which opens Friday, Aug. 31.
Hillcoat’s made an interesting career for himself, taking ideas that look like little more than throw-down action movies and turning them into films that offer a surprising level of emotional engagement. He had the most success with this in The Proposition, the western that reinvigorated Guy Pearce’s career, not to mention his adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
He’s less successful in this new endeavor, written by frequent collaborator Nick Cave. Despite a few rousing action sequences and a gorgeous production design, Lawless is fairly lifeless and feels overly long, as if Cave simply couldn’t bear to part with anything that appeared in the source material, Matt Bondurant’s The Wettest County. Bondurant’s book is about his own ancestors, who, like the rest of the population of Franklin Country, Va., during Prohibition, made and sold moonshine.
In Lawless, Tom Hardy plays Forrest, the Luke Duke of three brothers, the steady hand who keeps Howard (Jason Clarke)—aka Bo Duke, a wild man with a drinking problem—in check. Unlike the Dukes, Forrest and Howard have a younger brother, Jack (Shia LaBeouf ), the sweet, sensitive kid who has a hard time with the violence his bros are more than willing to dispense.
See, as Lawless opens, a new lawman comes to town, an angry, vicious bastard known as Charlie Rakes. He’s played by Pearce, who makes Rakes so extreme that he’s basically an R-rated version of Roscoe P. Coltrane, taking his orders from a mostly unseen Boss Hogg figure.
So, there you go. The good guy, Pearce, is really the bad guy. The bad guys, the Bondurants, are the good guys. There are car chases. It’s really not unlike the TV show, but it isn’t meant for kids, because Lawless is often punctuated with extraordinarily brutal violence.
It’s also over-plotted. Jessica Chastain plays a girl from Chicago who drops in on the restaurant the boys run and is immediately given a job and turned into the love interest for Forrest. Jack woos a preacher’s daughter (Mia Wasikowska), who’s used as a device to shift the movie into its third act. Gary Oldman is Chicago gangster Floyd Banner, and he’s so great in the few minutes he’s on the screen that you wonder why he doesn’t have his own film. All of these bits and pieces are jumbled together, and while the movie makes sense, it feels bloated, like you might after drinking a jar of low-quality shine the morning after.
LaBeouf has some talent, and he’s clearly interested in transforming (ha ha!) his body of work. He’s good here, and, when all’s said and done, Lawless really is his movie. But Hillcoat essentially wastes Hardy, one of the most interesting actors out there, turning him into a stoic mountain man whose most interesting moments come when he finally pulls on the brass knuckles and takes his frustration out on a city slicker or two.
Sure, it’s tough to straddle the line between action and drama, and Hillcoat’s greatest problem is that he has so much of each that he’s unable to truly embrace either. Lawless is far too chatty, and when the violence comes, it’s graphic and unrelenting. The invincibility of the Bondurant brothers, at least in the eyes of Jack, is an interesting concept that’s never quite fleshed out in a way that’s satisfying.
Still, for a bunch of shine-running orphans, these boys do pretty well for themselves. Someday, I suppose, the mountain might get ’em, but the law never will.
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