What should be a classic modern-western gets derailed by schizophrenic direction in John Hillcoat's hilariously uneven depiction of a Lawless world. Tom Hardy and Shia LeBeouf star as two of the legendary Bondurant brothers: a clan of moonshine-slingin' outlaws who turned the prohibition era into their very own Wild West. The film is full of larger-than-life flourishes, mythical suggestions, and sequences that struggle towards that singular, operatic feeling that the best westerns achieve. It doesn't quite get there.
Hillcoat's direction can't decide what he wants the film to be. Is this a hallucinogenic journey western, like "Dead Man"? Or is a deconstruction of tall tales, in the mode of "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean"? Perhaps he's going for the John Ford feeling, considering how full the film is of faux-profound long shots and maudlin music. I wouldn't know, because as auspicious as Hillcoat's ambitions are, this movie doesn't compare to the aforementioned films and filmmakers.
The plot - which sees Hardy, LeBeouf, and the rest of their clan, including a stunning Jessica Chastain, going to war with a government-run special agent (Guy Pearce as 'Charlie Rakes') who's hell-bent on dismantling their 'no-bribes-necessary' way of doing business - feels like an excuse; a well-worn formula which Hillcoat can use to smuggle his ideas about the nature of legends through to the big screen. It's as tired as it gets, combining the "men passed over by time" theme of so many canon classics with the "good 'ol boy who won't give in to city forces" narrative of every moonshine movie ever made. You'd think this would be a set-up for something crazier, and more original, beneath the surface of the overcooked premise. And indeed, the occasionally insane visuals, full of hallucinogenic detail and artful use of the Cinemascope frame, suggest a movie far less rote than "Lawless" truly is.
Don't get me wrong: there's plenty that "Lawless" gets right. Most of those things have to do with Tom Hardy. We slowly watch as the man morphs into legend, Hardy subtly adjusting his manner of dialogue and movement as his character becomes more of an idea than a person (they become more incoherent despite starting at a pretty unintelligible point - and more powerful, respectively.) And he brings the same manic, violent passion that made films like "Bronson" evoke danger back to the table. There aren't a ton of fight scenes in "Lawless," but when they occur, and when Hardy steps into frame with fists clenched, be ready to grimace. Or, for the more squeamish of us, be ready to look away entirely.
Past Hardy's electric performance, the film's problems are significant. Don't even get me started on Gary Oldman's almost-non-existent turn as big city gangster Floyd Banner. His entire character arc doesn't exist thanks to what I assume was some late-in-the-game editing from the notorious Harvey Weinstein (Hollywood insiders once called him "Scissorhands" thanks to his tendency for editing down his directors' work personally). It leaves Oldman's character motivations incomprehensible, his existence negligible, and the film, at 115 minutes, is still overlong. You get the feeling the only reason he's still in it is so they can advertise his name on the poster.
And then there's Guy Pearce's performance: sniveling, sneering, and generally acting like the most over-the-top bad guy the silver screen has seen since the heyday of Edward G. Robinson. It's a laugh, reducing the cathartic ending to a tongue-in-cheek joke. I assume there's an alternate universe version of this film, much better than the one I've seen, where everyone takes Pearce's lead and acts as if they're making a film on a backlot in the pre-code days. I'd have much rather watched that one. Because for every worthwhile beating, or every subversion of classic hero tropes, or even every mystically beautiful rendering of a Southern homestead, Hillcoat makes ten incomprehensible choices that leave the film feeling as low-rent as the whiskey we watch the Bondurants cook up.