John Hillcoat’s Lawless may be full of half-hearted overtures toward depth and emotional complexity, but the film’s prestige sheen is mostly a sham; the real focus here is the irrepressible lure of bad behavior. Chicago gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) sweeps into quiet Franklin County, Virginia as an emissary from a different world, one where justice is meted out through the reckless spattering of Tommy gun bullets. Things are initially different in Franklin, the so-called “wettest county in the world,” a moonshine-soaked mountain haven where every lawman is complicit in trafficking white lightning, the hills are dotted with still fires, and there’s more than enough money to go around. Banner’s bloody visit, however, is a sign that change is in the air.
Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf), the obligatory audience surrogate and family runt, uses this event as personal inspiration, going from serving as his brother’s driver and housemaid to running his own bootlegging operation on the side. He’s so enamored with the intruding Floyd that he saves the gangster’s bullet casings to make a necklace. At first it seems like he’s rushing to tend to a man left dying by those bullets, but there’s no time here for such softness; the film is so unconcerned with collateral damage and hastily dispatched henchmen that it’s tempting to surmise that we’re witnessing a grand statement on criminal indifference and incipient capitalist greed. Again, no such luck.
If there’s any import to Lawless, it’s in the visual inversion of small-town myths, with Normal Rockwell-influenced compositions crossbred with Edward Hopper-style murkiness. Once again working with DP Benoît Delhomme, Hillcoat transitions from the dusty yellows of The Proposition and the charnel grays of The Road to a palette dominated by muddy earth tones, with a gorgeous use of shadows, displayed in chiaroscuro barrooms, mist-wreathed forests, and snow-kissed streets.
Jack is the youngest member of the Bondurant clan, a trio of bootleggers who operate under a legendary mantle of invincibility. Their easygoing dominance over Franklin County is threatened by the arrival of another crooked emissary from Chicago, Special Agent Charlie Rakes, played by Guy Pearce as a vainly vile monster—further reminder that we’re deeply rooted in pulp territory. Rakes has the authority to corral ordinarily easygoing local officials under his command, and expects to exact a hefty tax from all local bootleggers. The brothers, led by mealy mouthed monster Forrest (Tom Hardy), refuse to pay, and suddenly we’re in Mel Gibson territory, with the simple peace of locals threatened by the voracity of a corrupt, broadly sketched bully state.
Thankfully, Lawless doesn’t take itself too seriously, with its pretensions toward gravitas repeatedly punctured by Nick Cave’s rough but effective screenplay, which traffics in crude humor and violent set pieces. Because the movie remains so firmly focused on functioning as pure entertainment, flaws like a botched central conflict and cardboard female characters don’t detract as much as they might. The film elevates pulp fare with the trappings of prestige, even as it dares itself to go as nasty as possible: Great sound design can convey both the delicate rustle of autumn leaves and the rotten-tomato smush of a forceful punch to a goiter. A colorful, carefully paced, and deliriously violent update of gangster archetypes, it’s the perfect bridge between the senseless blather of summer and the hollow pomposity of awards season.