Better not cross those three Bondurant boys. “I’m a Bondurant,’’ says Forrest (Tom Hardy). “We don’t lay down for nobody.’’ They most surely do not, though Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) is looking to change that.
It’s Prohibition, and the Bondurants are small-time bootleggers in the Blue Ridge foothills of southern Virginia. The country is mighty handsome, and so’s “Lawless’’ (even if it was shot in Georgia). The movie has a handsome look generally, right down to the vintage cars (and a nifty proto-pickup truck) that the characters ride around in. Much of the action may be nearly as grim as in director John Hillcoat’s previous feature, “The Road’’ — “Lawless’’ is very bloody — but the scenery and production design are a whole lot nicer.
Forrest is the chief brother. “There’s a feelin’ around these parts that Forrest Bondurant is different from other fellas,’’ the local sheriff warns Pearce’s character. How so? “Indestructible,’’ the sheriff says. It’s nice to get to see Hardy (Bane, in “The Dark Knight Rises’’) with his face covered only by a scraggly beard. If Hardy’s screen presence were any more massive, he’d be his own subcontinent. Why does he bother to use brass knuckles? His punches have ICBM throw weight. Forrest has Bane’s formidability, if not quite his villainy. It’s hard to sound all that villainous with the speaking voice Hardy’s come up with for the character. Imagine Jeff Bridges simultaneously talking, burping, and snarling. That’s how Forrest sounds.
Howard (Jason Clarke) is a bit of a wild man, especially when he’s had too much to drink. The youngest brother, Jack (Shia LeBeouf), is a bit of a twerp. He has big ideas, though. The Bondurant stills are little more than a glorified moonshine operation. Jack wants to join forces with gangster Floyd Banner and start bringing in serious money — maybe even enough to impress the preacher’s daughter (Mia Wasikowska) Jack has his eye on.
Gary Oldman, as Banner, has all of two scenes. He’s back to playing baddies, after his good-guy run of Sirius Black, Commissioner Gordon, and George Smiley. Ah, recidivism. Similarly wasted are Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain, as Forrest’s love interest. This is Chastain’s first live-action appearance onscreen this year (she’s also a voice in “Madagascar 3’’), after acting in no fewer than six releases in 2011. Maggie, her character, is a tough-talking dame who shows up one day, just like that, from Chicago.
Equally puzzling is the presence of Rakes. He’s from Chicago, too. Was the railroad running special fares to southern Virginia? He has slicked-back hair and dresses immaculately, right down to wearing kid gloves. Rakes has the look of the third-billed male in an Astaire-Rogers musical. He’s the one Ginger thinks she’s in love with until she realizes it’s really Fred. The Bondurants are on the wrong side of the law, but they’re good people. (That may have something to do with the fact that the author of the novel about their real-life exploits that “Lawless’’ is based on is their grandson.) Rakes is on the right side, but he’s bad, bad, bad. It would be better if he were also believable, believable, believable.
The singer Nick Cave wrote the script, and “Lawless’’ is full of music that contributes to the film’s period authenticity. Cave and Warren Ellis did the score. Clarence Ashley’s magnificent “Coo Coo Bird’’ is briefly heard (with Wasikowska strumming a ukulele!), as is a 1920s version of Lou Reed’s “White Light, White Heat.’’ It fits right in. Someone who’d never heard the Velvet Underground original would think the song was almost a century old. The logic is impeccable: white light+white heat=white lightning.