Bootleggers have been an intriguing and entertaining subject for the movies since the glory days of James Cagney. So “Lawless,” the new drama about Moonshiners operating above the law in Appalachia, should have been terrific. Instead its the sort of lifeless prestige picture that gets your attention and then bores you to death. That’s not to say that “Lawless” is incompetent. It’s a handsomely mounted production full of beautiful period costumes, and the rich scenery of Appalachia which becomes an intrinsic part of the story. But its less involving than a History Channel special on the same subject would be.
The film centers on the Bondourant family- backwoods bootleggers turning moonshine into a reliable and profitable business in Virginia during prohibition. The family is lead by Forrest, played by Tom Hardy. He’s a soft spoken figure with a larger than life reputation for indestructibility after a series of brushes with death. Shia Lebouf plays Jack, the youngest member of the clan. He’s a glorified errand boy, and driver but longs to share in the wealth that comes from selling a product everyone wants and will pay handsomely to get.
The family and everyone else know the county runs on moonshine, and they operate out in the open by throwing a few cases the sheriff’s way. But this genteel corruption is thrown off balance when a special deputy from the big city (Guy Pierce) shows up. He’s supposed to be bringing law and order, but really he just wants a bigger cut than the Bondourants are willing to give. Pierce plays him as a ridiculous effeminate cartoon of a big city stuffed shirt. He flies into a rage when his fancy clothes get dirty and carries himself with his nose so high up in the air passing airplanes might have to swerve to miss it.
The film is an interesting period piece, but could have used a little more flair. There are a few gunfights (courtesy of a big city gangster played by Gary Oldman) but most everyone dials down their performances. The only one who hints at what the film might have been is Hardy. He’s got plenty of character to work with and He could have chewed the scenery, and gone full corn-pone. But instead he merely mutters in a grizzled southern drawl. After this and The Dark Knight Rises, Hardy seems to be making something of a habit out playing characters you can barely understand.
“Lawless” may be a movie about outlaws, but could use a little more rebellious spirit of its own.