Talks the talk, but not a patch on Boardwalk

Australian director John Hillcoat follows The Proposition and The Road with another vision of society struggling to establish civic order. Between the film and television incarnations of The Untouchables and the magnificent HBO drama Boardwalk Empire, currently in its third season, there lies countless other productions detailing the USA’s crime-ridden prohibition years. Lawless seeks to draw a contrast between the city-based exploits we’ve already seen, by showing us the supposedly true-life rural shenanigans of the Bondurant boys − based on the novel The Wettest County In The World by Matt Bondurant. Detailing the lives of his ancestors, Bondurant’s story follows three brothers as they run a countryside moonshine operation in Franklin County, Virginia. A legend has long surrounded the Bondurant brood: that they are protected by magic and cannot be killed.

As their family-run business expands, it attracts unwanted attention from corrupt federal agents. The brothers, Forrest (Hardy), Howard (Clarke) and Jack (LaBeouf), are offered a deal and advised not to refuse it: the corrupt authorities want their cut of the profits or the brothers will be shut down by the feds. But stoic patriarch Forrest is not the sort to bow to pressure, and soon the Bondurant boys have a war on their hands.

After his wildly intense turn as Bane in this summer’s The Dark Knight Rises, Hardy emerges from behind the mask to again prove his mettle with this more introspective character. The chief agitator is played by Hillcoat-regular, Guy Pearce. Pearce (inexplicably sans eyebrows) plays an unsavoury federal dandy named Rakes, appointed as special deputy of the county. Constantly flirting with theatricality, Pearce imbues the role masterfully with almost Disney-esque villainy, resembling a lean, black, shiny-shelled creepy-crawly. Despite his violent methods, he dislikes getting his hands dirty and, as such, wears the finest leather gloves whenever he goes a-skull-cracking. Like Hillcoats’ similarly themed The Proposition, also penned by Nick Cave (yes, the musician), Lawless is a bloody brutal picture with heightened on-screen violence, the likes of which is not possible to enjoy nor always fully justify. The film seems designed to provoke unease. The production design and costumes are authentically rendered in period detail; the clothes are filthy, the walls have infinite texture and no face is fully clean. Hillcoat has delivered an immersive experience, a fully realised world populated by morally complex characters − but to what end?

Something prevents this film from reaching the heights it seems geared toward. It’s hard to condone or condemn the behaviour of the brothers as they strive to run their business, inevitably clashing with the corrupt arm of the law. Admirably, they survive under the harshest conditions, but in doing so they must behave like gangsters: survival is won by ugly deeds − their business is conducted with knuckle dusters, knives and guns. As Hardy’s character says “without the fear, we’re as good as dead.” Hardy and LaBeouf cut heroic figures, but admiration for them is constantly tempered by the immorality of their methods and the pointlessness of both their trade and the law that hinders it. LaBeouf turns in his first truly credible performance, a nuanced vulnerability replacing that angry, directionless intensity that seems to constitute his default setting. Here LaBeouf puts in the most amiable performance of the film and possibly his career. However, with the exception of his touching relationship with a baptist preacher’s daughter and his friendship with the young cripple Cricket, the film is a solidly crafted but cold-blooded affair.

Lawless (15)

Dir: John Hillcoat; US drama/action, 2012, 116 mins; Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Mia Wasikowska

Premieres October 11

Playing nationwide