*1/2 (out of four)
Formerly called “The Wettest County in the World” and then “The Wettest County,” “Lawless” depicts neither a soaked country or a chaotic, lawless society. Oops.
Sure, this Prohibition-era tale, based on Matt Bondurant’s book “The Wettest County in the World,” focuses on real-life brothers (Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Jason Clarke) who run a moonshine operation in Franklin, Va., supposedly the wettest county in the world. You’d think this much-delayed drama from director John Hillcoat (“The Proposition”) and writer Nick Cave thus would depict the community as a lively place, thriving in speakeasies amidst the ever-present possibility of arrest. You’d be wrong. The movie captures virtually no impact of illegal alcohol distribution other than the way in which it inspires totally unexamined police corruption and sparks constant violence between those who have and those who want.
Gary Oldman plays one of those gangsters, Floyd Banner. Oldman’s typically strong performance might have helped the movie, if his character didn’t completely disappear without explanation. “Lawless” presents racially segregated drinking fountains without discussing what racial disparity has to do with the main plot, which includes not one but two underwritten, chemistry-free love stories—between Forrest (Hardy) and Maggie (Jessica Chastain), and between Jack (LaBeouf) and a preacher's daughter (Mia Wasikowska).
The simplistic softness of these subplots clashes badly with the film’s brutal violence. At least the impact of a shotgun to the face or a shovel to the head possesses more weight than a ridiculous shootout in which several people stand around and watch. Everyone else has rather bad aim.
A longer version of the film reportedly exists, which may or may not explain pacing issues that make the first hour an awful bore despite a set of brass knuckles and a knife to the throat. No director's cut, however, will solve the distracting performances by Guy Pearce (as sleazy Special Agent Charlie Rakes) and Noah Taylor (as one of Floyd’s henchmen). They pull out what little reality remains in a movie that already embarrassingly fails to illuminate real life.
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