It would be fair to say that Australian director John Hillcoat’s previously released feature, The Road (2009), had minimal action. His dour adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic thriller played down the drama and focused heavily (arguably far too much) on anxious, pensive walking. Perhaps that’s why his latest film is an all guns blazing neo-western; bloody, violent and packed with gangs out for revenge. Hillcoat hasn’t wandered too far from his literary inspirations however, adapting Matt Bondurant’s book The Wettest County in the World into a bloody crime drama under the revisionist title of Lawless (2012).
Lawless picks up on the lives of the bootlegging Bondurant brothers in Virginia during the age of Prohibition. Managing some of the largest illegal distilleries in the state, ringleader Forrest (Tom Hardy) and his partner in crime Howard (Jason Clarke) make a new enemy in Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce). Called in from Chicago to assist in enforcing prohibition, he’s peeved to learn that the brothers won’t share some of their profits with him. Shia LaBeouf takes centre stage as the youngest brother, out to prove himself a kingpin; and at the risk of making this an all-male affair, Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska are dropped in as love interests.
There’s little intrigue and intelligence to the story writer Nick Cave and Hillcoat have chosen and is in part a mere flashback to their collaboration on The Proposition (2005). There’s nothing on the political context of Prohibition-era America, the stranglehold that crime syndicates had on authorities, or even the differences between redneck and city prevention strategies. The only whiff of context is when Howard bribes the local sheriff with some cases of moonshine, a vice soon straightened out when Chicago lawman Rakes steps in to stop the brothers. Rakes is a predictable outsider and a caricature of Eliot Ness, the Al Capone-hunting federal agent of Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987).
Lawless is far from the complex and intricate deconstruction available in shows like Boardwalk Empire and doesn’t capture the extent of the secret and shady dealings found in immediate Prohibition-era films such as Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932). Instead, Hillcoat’s film is a glossy, nostalgic, dreamy portrayal of Southern crime dramas as we are supposed to enjoy them: rowdy with Tommy guns, folk music and cigar smoke.
Some entertainment can be located in this broad approach, as the narrative makes it clear who the good guys are and why we should root for them. But Hillcoat has a huge opportunity to explore the tactics of alcohol infiltration in places like Virginia, given that so many of the noir-esque gangland dramas are set in Chicago. He has squandered this chance by serving up a gun-toting, hillbilly stereotype of life out in the country.