Kevin Costner’s sign off to The Untouchables, “I think I’ll have a drink”, may be the last word on prohibition, but in keeping with the philosophy of the humble soak, there’s always time for another. No less a man than Nick Cave has scripted this moonshine western in which feared bootlegging brethren lock horns with an oily Chicago enforcer; fearless, possibly repressed in the Robert Walker/Bruno Anthony mode, and a copper bottomed psychotic. It’s a conflict that allows an eyebrow-free, allegedly floral scented Guy Pearce to slap Shia LaBeouf, the designated “runt of the litter”, around a bit. That’s distilled pleasure to rival any jar of spirit.
The aspirant entrepreneur, mere oomska from his mother’s filth in comparison to hulken brother and lead smuggler, Tom Hardy, and imposing middle child Jason Clarke, wants to prove himself worthy of the immortal tag laid on his brood, while Pearce, the seedy, city slick back, is just as keen to assert his masculine credentials. That, dangerously, means cruelty and aggression unbound. It’s a pleasurable enough arc for Shia’s eager-to-please whippersnapper; he does a fine job of falling over his feet, preening for the local church girl and getting whipped into a hateful froth; but it’s the only meat to go with the red-eyed gravy and grits.
Like an old ford running on white whiskey instead of gasoline, Lawless takes a while to get started but once revved, with the inevitable standoff between LaBeouf’s brood and their nemesis edging closer, momentum is achieved, and an involving game of homosexual cat and liquor smuggling mouse ensues. The southern locations, Georgian creeks, hickories and wood taverns, doubling for 30’s Virginia, are well chosen and the period detail – the backwater mass, the segregated fountains and bathhouses – imbue proceedings with a rustic simplicity that conditions the mind to anticipate the very lawlessness promised.
That said, John Hillcoat, of The Proposition fame, can’t invest the material with enough weight, nor scope, to make his hillbilly fable consequential. Measured performances from the leading triumvirate of LaBeouf, Hardy and Pearce wet the whistle but there’s no long finish: these are utilitarian but ultimately underwritten parts. That goes double for Jessica Chastain’s Maggie – the movie personified – colourful, steely yet cold.
In one of the film’s more memorable moments, a hood undergoes an unsanitary castration and has his junk sent to Pearce in a jar. There’s the metaphor that attentive but slow palpating critics were thirsting for. Where’s this movie’s spunk? Good performances mask a lack of dimensionality in characterisation, the story spoons the incidental and that southern landscape, though evocative, is just too damn still. Sergio Leone could create tension using a fly and the barrel of Jack Elam’s gun, proving that full audience immersion didn’t require anything so crude as pyrotechnics or histrionics. Here we’re left admiring the view. It’s a picture but then so is an old postcard.