Just give ’em whiskey

Here’s the proposition: Lawless tells the true tale of the Bondurant brothers, moonshine suppliers in early-30s rural Franklin County, Virginia whose nice little cottage industry takes a turn for the dicey and dangerous when a new G-man comes to town and attempts to clean it up. We all know that Prohibition gave birth to gangsters and, in its attempt to rid the United States of liquor, merely drove it underground, or, in the case of Franklin, up into the mountains. (There’s a shot early on in John Hillcoat’s handsome-looking film of a hillside aflame in the evening sky with whiskey stills pumping out their heady brew, soon to be decanted in jam jars, and swigged with the accompanying sharp intake of breath.) This pivotal era in American history is, unfortunately for Hillcoat and his writer Nick Cave, currently being played out in operatic style by HBO’s Boardwalk Empire – the Blu-Ray of whose second season was, ironically, or cruelly, advertised before Lawless at the Curzon this afternoon. What can the Australian pair add?

Well, Boardwalk is set amid the dandies, whores and brokers of Atlantic City, and concerns the intricate handover of power during temperance. Lawless, based on the book by one of the three brother’s grandsons, is an everyday story of country folk. When a city mobster drives into this one-horse town – Gary Oldman, whose role is a swiz-like cameo – he shoots the shit out of it with a Thompson sub-machine gun. (He will come to have a more significant bearing on the story, however.) Frankly, in Franklin, things are ticking over nicely in the beginning: the jam jars are unloaded from a flatbed truck, money changes hands, the brothers are working it out, and nobody gets hurt, only drunk. It’s only when the city slickers come over the hill that the applecart of entrepreneurial equilibrium is upset.

Sounds intriguing, doesn’t it? If only this promising premise made it past some striking imagery and some violent set-pieces. Tom Hardy, bulked up for Bane, is the central Bondurant, Forrest, a man of thick neck and few words. His dialogue is mostly grunts and varying deliveries of the phrase, “All right.” It’s unnerving, but it gets self-parodic. I was more intrigued by the fuck-up Bondurant, Howard, played by Aussie Jason Clarke (ever see Brotherhood on TV?), but he is sidelined in favour of Shia LaBeouf, the Michael Corleone of the family, Jack, whose “journey” is the film’s. Can he step up to the plate and grow the “balls” his elder brothers mock him for not having?

What has all the makings of a Biblical saga constantly fails to take flight and become epic. Some of the violence is memorable – Forrest’s secret weapon is a knuckle duster; and revenge is always a dish served sadistic in this kind of film – but Jessica Chastain’s ex-exotic dancer from the city has little to do except smoulder, and Guy Pearce as the pantomime villain is so over the top he seems to have stepped off the pages of Sin City (he even looks inked in).

Cave and Hillcoat have a sixth sense for the mythic, as seen in their outback Western The Proposition, and you’ll enjoy gazing upon the almost colourless Lawless and its lovely period detail (one hotel’s battered sign advertises the establishment as “fire-proof”) – and the eagle-eared, if that’s such a thing, will note Cave and Warren Ellis’s old-time bluegrass renditions of modern songs from the Velvets, Link Wray and Beefheart (the latter two sung by Mark Lanegan); an unobtrusive but wily twist on the period fidelity. But all this good doesn’t quite add up to the modern gangster classic it seemed to advertise.

Maybe a fictional story would have hit more notes of drama? Although having said that, the budding romance between LaBeouf and preacher’s daughter Mia Wasikowski was pure Hollywood, and I rather doubt it happened as neatly as that. Hey, maybe it’s Tom Hardy. He’s a striking looking man, and he mumbles as well as anybody from the Actors Studio in the 1950s, but he’s such a solid, immovable-looking rock of a performer, there’s no scope for lightness or surprises. (Imagine Daniel Craig after a few more weeks in the gym, and without the twinkle in his eye.)

Jason Solomons got in below-the-line trouble in the Guardian for spoilers when he reviewed it back in May at Cannes, so I’ll keep off the plot. Needless to say, there’s a lot of shooting. You’re going to have to really want a lot of shooting, and punching, and slitting, if you’re going to get more out of it than a sharp taste at the back of your throat and the occasional intake of breath. I still love Hillcoat’s eye – The Road was colourless, too, but compelling and complete – and perhaps Anthony Lane in the New Yorker is right: he should get on with it and make a war movie.