Here is Australian director John Hillcoat's idea of a good time: A Prohibition-era period piece about a real-life clan of Virginia bootleggers, in which throats are slashed with knives and crushed with brass knuckles; a cripple gets his neck snapped; a man is scalded by hot tar; and at least one pair of testicles is severed, packaged and left on a doorstep. If only a puppy had gotten kicked down a flight of stairs, then we'd really have a swinging party on our hands!
But seriously, folks. In an oeuvre defined by overbearing bleakness—this is the guy who thought The Road would make a great movie—Lawless is the most easily digestible of Hillcoat's bitter pills. Based on the book The Wettest County in the World, author Matt Bondurant's investigation into his family's history as outlaw moonshiners, the film blends truth and myth into the kind of crowd-pleasing, Western-style thriller that used to get Kevin Costner nominated for Oscars back in the '90s. Adapted by musician Nick Cave, who wrote Hillcoat's masterful outback Western The Proposition, it's still got the filmmaker's stamp of brutality (need I remind you of the thing with the testicles?). But for him, this is a popcorn flick. There are moments of humor and everything!
Lawless isn't flawless, though. Apropos of a movie about alcohol, its biggest problem is balance. Hillcoat roped in a stellar cast, and draws strong performances from every actor. Pity he couldn't keep track of them all. He puts the focus on Shia LeBeouf, playing the youngest and most timid of the three Bondurant brothers. Despite a shaky Southern accent, LeBeouf does well of what's asked of him, but not well enough to excuse him for stealing screen time from everyone else. As the eldest brother, Tom Hardy—for the second time this summer, excelling as a physically imposing, totally incomprehensible brute—fares best. But Guy Pearce, biting heartily into the role of a ruthless special agent imported from Chicago, dressing like a ventriloquist's dummy and delivering lines with the zeal of a Dick Tracy villain, goes missing for long stretches of time. Most egregiously misused is Gary Oldman, who mesmerizes as notorious gangster Floyd Banner, only to disappear after two scenes. R.
Critic's Grade: B
SEE IT: Lawless opens Wednesday at Lloyd Center, Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Eastport, Mill Plain, Cornelius, Oak Grove, Stadium 11, Bridgeport, City Center, Division, Evergreen Parkway, Fox Tower, Hilltop, Movies On TV, Sherwood, Tigard, Wilsonville, Sandy.