A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
"Lawless" is a well-made film about ignorant and violent people. Like the recent "Killer Joe," I can only admire this film's craftsmanship and acting, and regret its failure to rise above them. Its characters live by a barbaric code that countenances murder. They live or die in a relentless hail of gunfire. It's not so much that the movie is too long, as that too many people must be killed before it can end.
I don't require movies to be about good people, and I don't reject screen violence. The Australian director of "Lawless," John Hillcoat, made a film named "The Proposition" (2006) that was also about a band of brothers up against a ruthless lawman, and it was one of the best films of that year. Based loosely on fact, it was written by the musician Nick Cave, and perhaps that's why both men were hired to make "Lawless," based on a war between Virginia moonshiners and lawmen. Whatever inspired "The Proposition" is lacking here, however; the characters seem less driven than propelled by a script, and the most villainous is so far over the top, he upstages himself.
We meet the three Bondurant brothers in Franklin County, Va., during the Prohibition. They make excellent moonshine and defend their turf without compromise. Into their backwoods domain ventures Special Agent Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce), a fed from Chicago. He works with the none too enthusiastic local sheriff's department to do — what? Shut them down? Take them over? Kill them all?
This Charley Rakes, he's a piece of work. Here in the deep woods, he sticks out like a riverboat gambler. He's meticulously well-dressed, parts and slicks back his hair like Valentino, and uses so much cologne, he can't sneak up on anyone. He may be the first man in the history of Franklin County to wear dress gloves in the daytime. Pearce creates a detailed, foppish performance, adorning a sadistic personality. Charley is such a snake he deserves to be shot just on principle. One of the movie's mysteries is how he survives for so long.