There is an absolutely lovely and thrilling moment in Lawless, the new based on a true story film written by Nick Cave and directed by John Hillcoat about a trio of bootlegging brothers deep in the hills of Virginia. When Jack, the youngest of the clan, decides to court the preacher’s daughter by swigging a full mason jar of white lightning and attending Sunday service, he enters a white clapboard building where long-bearded men in dark coats and women in crisp bonnets and starched dresses sing a hymn by shape noting, an almost feral and mesmerizing way of making music.
When the congregation ends the hymn, they proceed to the tradition of washing one another’s feet. When the preacher’s daughter takes Jack’s foot in her hand, it is way too much for him and he runs outside, leaving a shoe behind ala Cinderella, getting sick along the way. This look at a religious service, an offshoot of Quakers and Mennonites, felt like entering new and unexplored territory, the sort of breathtaking scene one goes to movies to experience. And Hillcoat gives it its due. Unfortunately, once it’s over, we’re back to the more than familiar standard tale of bootlegging and moonshining. But it was nice while it lasted.
Lawless is lovely to look at with ravishing and picturesque frames of the hills of Virginia in full, fall foliage and stark ones of lonely bridges in wintertime. The costuming and sets give the story an intense period feel. But in the end, Lawless feels like a movie in search of a story.
The plot is a bit general. Some corrupt lawmen from Chicago come to town to take over. But the Bondruant brothers, being the alpha male Ayn Randians that they are, refuse to buckle. The story sort of lumbers along after this, making its way through a series of episodes that don’t feel like they’re really leading anywhere and with no satisfactory explanation as to why the Chicago gangsters take so long to try to wipe out the Boudrants. And it all ends with one of those shoot outs that made me ask the friend I was with, “Just how close do you actually have to be to someone in this movie before you can hit them?”
Because of this lack of a clear and strong through line, the screenplay tries to hang the story around Jack’s neck and make his coming of age character arc the linchpin that holds it all together, to mix a metaphor or two. But since Jack’s character is so annoying; because he’s such an idiot that you want to hit him up alongside his head; and since his journey isn’t all that intriguing or interesting, this probably wasn’t the best idea. He does have a journey and he does get somewhere. He reaches manhood the moment he can get himself to finally kill someone. Of course, a lot of people had to die first so he could learn this, but as they say, you got to crack a few eggs to make an omelet. But still, the lesson got learned and I guess that’s all that matters.
The cast does the best they can. Jason Clarke, as Howard the middle brother, who has a very expressive face and eyes, and Mia Wasikowska, as the mature for her age preacher’s daughter, probably give the best performances. Tom Hardy mumbles through his lines, an approach that worked for Marlon Brando, but doesn’t quite have the same effect here. Shia LaBeouf plays Jack and whether you think he’s any good or not will probably depend on how much you like his awkward, semi-nerdy, insecure becoming a child-man schtick. For my money, I think he acquits himself quite admirably, and it’s not really his fault that his character isn’t that interesting. But a special note must be made of Guy Pearce who plays Charlie Rakes, the Chicago germaphobe and sociopath with a messianic complex. A preposterous performance in a preposterous role, it almost has to be seen to be believed. One can’t tell if he’s terrible or he’s playing it exactly the way it was written, or both.