“Lawless,” an ultra-violent gangster tale by John Hillcoat (“The Proposition,” “The Road”), is a textbook example of why the final act of a film is its most important. Movies that start off poorly have the potential to rebound, gaining the audience’s trust and respect with future developments. The ones with weak midsections can often be forgiven as “slow in the middle.” But here, we have a film that falls into the most unfortunate category: it’s stellar until its final stretch, wherein the vast majority of acquired goodwill is squandered with concluding sequences that exhibit almost as much disrespect for the characters as they do the audience.
“Lawless” takes place in the mountains of Virginia during Prohibition, the sort of place a filmmaker might set a story in order to escape the intense permit process associated with staging intense firefights on urban city blocks. The viewer is assured that the film is based on a true story, though I reject the notion that the finale was, since there’s no way that even the dimmest hill people could behave so stupidly. While most of these characters never exhibit much intelligence or insight, there is a believability to their stubbornness–a measured pride and protectiveness over their habitat–that the final act betrays.
The story concerns the Bondurant Brothers, a backwoods group who, like many others during the 1920s, have discovered that moonshine production provides a superior income to selling squirrel pelts and fishing lures. The three run a gas station not as a place to launder income–they don’t need that, for local law doesn’t seem to enforce anything–but as more of a hangout.
Central to the story is Jack (Shia LaBeouf), the “runt” of the group, their weak link. The viewer expects him to step into manhood later on, and he does during the climax if one’s idea of maturity is an insane frontal assault on a group of expectant police officers. Jack’s aversion to violence makes his involvement in this criminal enterprise feel improbable — certainly never as credible as his pursuit of Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), a meek church girl, wherein the movie hits a certain stride. LaBeouf doesn’t have the look of this sort of person, but he puts in a solid performance anyway, only to be done in by the same bad ending that derails every other aspect of the film.
A more complex and behaviorally consistent brother than Jack is Forrest (Tom Hardy), the group’s de facto leader and a legendarily tough guy. He’s played by Hardy as a simple man whose local reputation for being invulnerable has stripped him of crucial caution. He hires Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a former prostitute, to work at their gas station, later becoming her lover.
The last brother is Howard (Jason Clarke), a wild brute who tends to keep quiet while his brothers, portrayed by significantly more famous actors, do the talking.
The county’s network of moonshiners is thrown into disarray upon the arrival of Special Agent Charles Rakes (Guy Pearce, a Hillcoat regular), whose name was certainly picked because it rhymes with “snakes.” This bizarre man, who lacks eyebrows, dresses to the nines, and tortures dissident moonshiners with lusty zeal, operates under the reluctant support of the corrupt sheriff. Pearce scores the film’s best performance–a sort of heavily diluted, Prohibition-era version of Heath Ledger’s Joker–though like the rest of the characters, Hillcoat treats him more as a prop than a man during the final scenes.
Hillcoat’s previous films include “The Proposition” and “The Road,” both of which rendered bleakly fantastic worlds. The setting of “Lawless” is substantially more familiar to cinema, its 1920s décor and gangster tools rendered appealingly, if with little pizzazz. Its stars, with the exception of Pearce, consistently resemble handsome actors playing dress-up instead of the denizens of an impoverished rural setting.
“Lawless” takes off and keeps up a good momentum, with the body count steadily going up and the bloodletting becoming incrementally more intense throughout. For 90 minutes or so, this is an excellent, gritty gangster picture — a fine look at this hillbilly clan’s struggles to keep their autonomy in the face of the near-corporate takeover mentality of their competition. There are interesting flourishes, such as a cameo by Gary Oldman as a local crime kingpin, though none of the film’s strengths survive its disastrous conclusion.
Hillcoat even has the nerve to end on a note of saccharine sentimentality towards the characters, depicting them as gentle, warm-hearted family men, apparently hoping that the audience would forget about an earlier sequence in which they severed a henchmen’s testicles and delivered them to a rival in a jar. Certainly, reality and fiction are full of heroes whose macabre actions still allow for our respect and affection. But here, Hillcoat asks the viewer to completely forget about what has come before, and, as is the sad case with Bad Third Act films, insists that the audience depart the theater with the bitter taste of disappointment.