Lawless: Moonshine and Machine Guns

Screening the history of bootlegging in urban America led to the invention of a genre—the gangster film—but moviegoers have seen little of the hills and hollers from whence the syndicates’ potent spirits were shipped. In Lawless, the scene is laid during the Indian summer of Prohibition in Franklin County, Virginia, where the flames of stills dot the hillsides. Foremost among Franklin’s moonshiners are the Bondurant brothers: the eldest, Howard (Jason Clarke), a half-crazed survivor of the trenches of World War I; middle child Forrest (Tom Hardy), the functioning ringleader; and the callow youngest, Jack (Shia LaBeouf), who narrates with awed reverence for his brothers. The Bondurants run a no-fuss distilling business inside the county and work hand-in-glove with local law enforcement, but the status quo is upset as outsiders roll in: first Maggie (Jessica Chastain), an ex-chorus girl from Chicago; headline-news gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), who stops in just long enough to empty a tommy gun into a pursuing automobile and to win the idolatry of Jack, who has ambitions beyond his brothers’ big-fish, small-pond setup; and Federal Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a citified dandy shipped down from Chicago to bust stills and heads. Director John Hillcoat makes genre films in an elevated style (Terrence Malick is given “special thanks”). He distills his stories into lyrical effects and a “painterly” mise-en-scène, but refines quite primitive relationships into abstractions. Hillcoat achieves some indelible moments in Lawless, but the narrative often seems at odds with the director’s pictorialism, trudging when it should be striding toward the climax.