As anybody who has watched the Discovery Channel knows, if you’re looking for moonshine, the place to start is in the foothills of south central and southwest Virginia. As the new movie “Lawless” makes clear, ’shine was never a passing fancy among the folk there. It’s a tradition that goes back generations.
“Lawless” is based on Matt Bondurant’s “The Wettest County in the World,” a historical novel spun out of Bondurant’s Franklin County, Va., moonshiner-ancestors. Bondurant whipped up a war between the local off-the-books distillers and the Prohibition-era Chicago mob, which aimed to take over the lucrative illegal liquor trade, from production to distribution.
The Bondurants are led by Forrest (Tom Hardy), the tough-minded World War I vet who formed the family legend that the Bondurants are “indestructible.” His wild-eyed brother Howard (Jason Clarke) seems to second that notion.
It’s only younger brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf) who seems vulnerable. He reads the newspapers and idolizes gangsters. He has a taste for fancy clothes and fancy convertible roadsters. It’s just that he’s not tough enough to get them.
So he sets out to change that. He’ll hook up with a mobster (Gary Oldman) lying low nearby. He’ll make his own deals.
And when Forrest is put out of commission by one of his many battles with the other unsavories, Jack has his chance.
A dapper, sadistic Chicago mobster (Guy Pearce) has arrived to help the Real Mob take control of the business, with the aid of the local prosecutor. Charlie Rakes wears bow ties and gloves and a little too much cologne. But don’t call him “Nancy.” He takes such aspersions personally.
A dance hall girl (Jessica Chastain) has taken a job in the Bondurants’ Black Water Station roadhouse, and she has taken a shine to Forrest. And a local Mennonite preacher’s daughter (Mia Wasikowska) has poor Jack trying to figure out how to be a rich, hard-drinking crook and still get her attention.
The proper ingredients are here to cook up a fine backwoods liquor war tale. The archetypes are broad and obvious, the violence is shocking, unflinching and in your face. Amazingly, people are sliced and shot to beat the band, but 1930s-era Franklin County emergency rooms were up to the challenge. Mostly.
But Aussie director John Hillcoat (“The Road”) and rocker-turned-screenwriter Nick Cave deliver a movie that never finds the right tone. It’s alternately grim and bemused. Too many tough guys tell other tough guys “Look at me” too many times. There are too many characters to juggle for any of them to truly get their due. Oldman has a glorified cameo, LaBeouf was the bigger star when production began, and turning Hardy into the lead in the editing booth doesn’t quite work out.
And what’s the deal with Hardy’s accents these days? He was fine in British period pieces and crime pictures, and played Nick Nolte’s son convincingly in “Warrior.” Then came “The Dark Knight Rises,” where he tried out some Sean Connery as Darth Vader number for the villain Bane. And here his southwest Virginia accent is neither Virginia nor southwest.
Only Wasikowska nails it. “You sure got a funny way a courtin’, Jack Bondurant!”
Hardy should have listened to LaBeouf, who takes a shot at a drawl in some scenes, and says “To heck with it” in others.
All those elements conspire to render “Lawless” inauthentic, a movie pulled together by a lot of folks who had no feel for the setting or the story they were telling.
A backwoods “Boardwalk Empire” is what they wanted. The only scenes that work involve moving the moonshine by tin lizzie. A 1930s “Dukes of Hazzard” would have been more within their reach.