John Hillcoat’s new crime drama was originally called The Wettest County in the World but now goes by Lawless – a more generic moniker, perhaps, but a fitting one. Desperadoes have long fascinated this Aussie auteur, who previously transported us to a maximum-security prison (Ghosts…of the Civil Dead), 19th-century Queensland (The Proposition) and a post-apocalyptic landscape (The Road). Add to that list Prohibition-era Virginia, an equally savage land where the moonshine flows as freely as spilled blood. Working again with screenwriter Nick Cave, Hillcoat dramatises the supposedly true story of three bootlegging brothers (Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf and Jason Clarke) who spar with a corrupt Chicago lawman (Guy Pearce) looking to either poach their profits or run them out of business.
The filmmakers seem intoxicated by the milieu – not just its vintage cars and clothes, but also its spirit of unchecked barbarism. What they’re less interested in, evidently and unfortunately, is the story they’ve constructed around it. Despite several energising scenes of period-specific violence – Gary Oldman going wild with a tommy gun, a horrifically unfunny tarring-and-feathering – Lawless never picks up much steam. It doesn’t help that our outlaw heroes lack personality: Hardy’s mumbling big brother is all gruff stoicism, while an outmatched LaBeouf seethes unconvincingly as the “runt of the litter.” (The boys’ respective love interests are played by Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska, both completely wasted in nothing roles.) Only Pearce’s sneering dandy of a villain approximates the primal menace of Cave and Hillcoat’s The Proposition, a great outback oater truly worthy of the title Lawless.