We all know that movies based on actual events can sometimes diverge quite a bit from what really happened. Still, there are some points which can’t really be fudged; a name like “Bondurant” for a gang of Appalachian moonshiners who really are good and hard is a little on-the-nose. Michael Bondurant’s family history, The Wettest County in the World, is practically begging to be adapted into a film. And Lawless, the Nick Cave-penned adaptation in question, is proof that it’s still possible to screw it all up.
The Bondurants are three brothers — Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke), and Jack (Shia LaBeouf) — in Franklin, Virginia, where moonshining is the local industry of note, even at the height of Prohibition. Unlike the gang violence in the big cities, in Franklin the alcohol trade is basically out in the open. Nobody makes a big deal out of it and, other than some few malcontents, everybody is happy.
Until, that is, the Commonwealth’s Attorney sends in a new special deputy, Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce). Things can still go on as before, but The Man wants a cut now and Forrest isn’t inclined to pay off an outsider just because he says so. Rakes would deal with this much as a city gangster would control his turf, but the Bondurants have. Local reputation for being invulnerable, and from what we see there may be something to the legend.
Hardy does well as Forrest, as does Clarke as Howard, though he has much less to do in the first place. Pearce does a great job of being Rakes, but the big catch is that Charlie Rakes — the fop from the Big City — is a cartoon. So, a good performance of a bad character sort of comes out as a wash. Still, he can be a perverse sort of fun.
Would that I could say as much for Jack, who amounts to Sam Witwicky with a drawl. This is another stock character — the guy with more aspiration than sense — who seems to exist solely to ruin everything around him.
And then there are the wasted plotlines that seem tacked on to the rest of the story. There’s a love interest for Forrest in the form of Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a Girl With A Past from Chicago, who swings between eye candy and playing Wendy to these Lost Boys. There’s the local preacher’s daughter, Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), for Jack, seemingly because a male lead needs a woman or something. There’s even one that shows up in the awkward epilogue at the very end for Howard. There’s the big time gangster, Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), who could provide a counterbalance to Forrest’s influence on Jack in a better story that actually used him. And there’s Jack’s friend Cricket (Dane DeHaan), who is a little better integrated into the plot as the inventor of NASCAR, but his frequently-highlighted limp points to a deeper backstory which goes mentioned but unexplored.
All of these threads are ones that could be woven into a richer tapestry than we see, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Bondurant’s book did just that. But in adapting it to the screen it feels like Cave and director John Hillcoat didn’t know where to draw the line and cut out inessential parts they didn’t have the time to deal with properly.
And as a result the movie doesn’t hum along like a well-tuned engine in a high-powered stock car. Instead it lurches along in fits and starts, never finding a natural pace between all the points it wants to hit. There are plenty of good pieces on display, but they just don’t fit together as a whole the way they should.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.