Lawless (2012) Film. Director : John Hillcoat

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In 1931, in Franklin County, Virginia, Forrest Bondurant is a legend as immortal after surviving the war. Together with his brothers Howard and the coward Jack, the Bondurant family has a distillery and bootlegging business. When the corrupt District Attorney Mason Wardell arrives in Franklin with the unscrupulous Special Deputy Charles Rakes, the Bondurant family refuses to pay the required bribe to the authorities. Rakes pursues the brothers and unsuccessfully tries to find their distillery. Meanwhile Forrest hires the waitress Maggie, a woman with a hidden past in Chicago, and they fall in love with each other. Jack courts the preacher’s daughter Bertha Minnix and deals a great load of alcoholic liquor with the powerful gangster Floyd Banner. Jack shows off in Franklin attracting the attention of Rakes that finds the location of their distillery. When he kills the crippled Cricket Pete, the locals join forces to face the corrupt authorities.Written by Claudio Carvalho, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

John Hillcoat’s new film is closer in spirit to his outback western, The Proposition, than the more recent post-apocalyptic drama The Road. Lawless is based on the avowedly true story of the badass Bondurant brothers in prohibition-era Virginia, running illicit liquor and fighting battles with corrupt cops. It is a handsome-looking period picture with a reasonably winning lead performance from Shia LaBeouf. But it’s basically an empty exercise in macho-sentimental violence in which we are expected to root for the good ol’ boys, as they mumble, shoot, punch and stab. The final flurry of self-adoring nostalgia is borderline-nauseating.

Tom Hardy plays Forrest Bondurant, violent, impassive – though with a weakness for knitwear. Jason Clarke is Howard, the more obviously crazy hillbilly brother. Then there is nervy, quick-witted young Jack Bondurant, nicely played by LaBeouf, eager to prove himself. Their new riches inflame crooked federal agent Charlie Rakes, played by Guy Pearce – a pantomime baddie who wears swishy cologne. Meanwhile, Forrest and Jack somehow manage to attract the admiration of two beautiful women, played by Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska, who shimmer onto the screen turned out as if for a Vogue fashion shoot. The violence is gruesome, and perpetual, but the whole thing leaves nothing behind but a moonshine hangover.

AUG. 28, 2012

John Hillcoat’s new movie, “Lawless” — written by Nick Cave — is based on a true-story novel called “The Wettest County in the World,” by Matt Bondurant. The area in question is Franklin County, Va., and in 1931, when most of the action in the film takes place, it was a bloody paradise of bootleggers. This picturesque corner of Appalachia has now provided a bonanza for dialect coaches and their charges, who set the hills alive with a symphony of dropped consonants and attenuated vowels almost as violent as the gunfire that periodically erupts.

Each actor takes a different approach to the demands of a tricky regional accent, which stretches the already thin credibility of the idea that they might be kin. Mr. Clarke does a bit of howling but not much chatting. Mr. LaBeouf, as is his custom, runs his mouth in as many directions as possible, while Mr. Hardy mostly grunts, growls and ribbits, occasionally interrupting his angry bullfrog impersonation to deliver down-home bromides that make him sound like Toby Keith choking on a Cheeto.

Not that the movie, a carnival of mayhem and period detail — visually suggesting Walker Evans, “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Miller’s Crossing” and “The Beverly Hillbillies” — exactly insists on realism. Nor, in spite of gruesome killings and boisterous car chases, does it hew to the conventions of the period gangster genre. It is, instead, a sprawling evocation of a vaguely rendered time and place, as crowded as an episode of “Hee Haw” and occasionally as much fun.

Life in Franklin County is brutal and complicated, especially when a Chicago lawman named Rakes (Guy Pearce), a sadist with slicked-down hair, chalk-striped suits and remarkable diction, starts to muscle in on the local moonshine action. When the Bondurants refuse to play by his rules — preferring to deal directly with a mob boss (Gary Oldman) — a nasty little war breaks out. Faces are pummeled; throats are cut; and shotguns, hunting knives and brass knuckles are put to grisly use.

To soften the mood a bit, there are inklings of romance (and flashes of bared skin) between Forrest and Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a redhead who shows up one day, in flight from the corruptions of the big city, to take a job pouring coffee in the cafe that serves as the Bondurants’ headquarters.

Jack, meanwhile, courts Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), the daughter of a local preacher. As he and his brothers expand their business — with the help of their frail young neighbor, Cricket (Dane DeHaan) — Jack develops a taste for flashy clothes and cars, affecting Cagneyesque mannerisms, even though he is not nearly as tough as Forrest or Howard.

And “Lawless” seems unsure of just how tough it wants to be, bouncing between rollicking backwoods humor and graphic violence, with a dollop of good-old-boys sentimentality thrown in for good measure. It has neither the stripped-down intensity of “The Proposition,” Mr. Hillcoat and Mr. Cave’s 2006 outback western, nor the lyrical austerity of “The Road,” Mr. Hillcoat’s not bad 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s postapocalyptic parable.

There are too many action-movie clichés without enough dramatic purpose, and interesting themes and anecdotes are scattered around without being fully explored. This is weak and cloudy moonshine: it doesn’t burn or intoxicate.