Bootlegger movies have tended to be rather high-spirited affairs, with reckless and wild country boys outsmarting and outdriving the slow-witted lawmen in their counties as a mouth organ boings in the background and a Dobro is being a-picked. Moonshiners are among the original romanticized outlaws, just plain folks in the hardscrabble working class trying to get by as best they can, providing salubrious liquid refreshment to their neighbors—who want and deserve a bit of fermented pleasure to take the edge off a very tough life.
The truth is sadder, as the truth usually is. I once wrote a profile of the actor and politician Fred Thompson, and thought I would get some amusing color by asking him jauntily about the bootlegging cases he had prosecuted as a young lawyer in Tennessee just out of law school in the 1960s—cases that got a lot of local media play at the time precisely because they involved moonshine and stills. Thompson grew rueful. The memory was painful, he said. These were desperately poor, illiterate, rural people who had their lives ruined for no good reason, because outmoded laws remained on the books, and state and federal agencies needed to justify their continued existence.
The new melodrama Lawless—based on the real-life story of a Virginia family in a corrupt county during Prohibition—is determined to show us some of the sad truth. The three Bondurant brothers wear dirty clothing and look like they rarely bathe. They lost their parents during the 1918 flu epidemic, and the two oldest lived through hell in World War I. They own a gas station in Franklin County, Virginia, but sell hooch on the side. Life has treated them harshly, and they treat it harshly right back.
The narrator is Jack (Shia LaBeouf), the youngest and softest Bondurant, who cries easily and can’t bring himself to throw a punch. He is viewed with a certain measure of contempt by his brothers, Howard (Jason Clarke) and Forrest (Tom Hardy, the man behind the Bane mask in The Dark Knight Rises). When a vicious new lawman (Guy Pearce) comes to town to gouge them, these ornery men refuse to go along. And so a war erupts.
This is a fine outline for a movie, but it turns out that watching a few low-level crooks making and distributing alcohol in a pristine rural setting really isn’t worth one’s time unless it has at least one Jew’s harp on the soundtrack.
The director, John Hillcoat, is far more interested in showing us pretty pictures of trees and vintage signs and fog rising from the surface of the morning lake than he is in constructing an interesting and involving plot. Chicago mobsters pop out of nowhere, turn out to be great guys, then vanish. Jessica Chastain turns up as a former stripper who seeks refuge in this very small town and falls for Forrest for no other reason than the movie needs a good topless scene. In the weirdest and most distracting trope, Hillcoat insists on photographing Mia Wasikowska, who plays Jack’s Mennonite love interest, in a headpiece that is deliberately designed to evoke Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (except without the earring). Why? She’s a girl in 1931 Virginia. It adds nothing to the movie besides annoying pretension, and it’s very distracting.
Meanwhile, the screenwriter Nick Cave (yes, the musician) betrays the movie’s effort to portray the bootlegging life honestly by ladling on some absurd mytho-poetry. We are told that the Bondurant brothers do not believe they can die because they have lived through wars and stabbings and shootings and throat-slittings and God knows what else. But then it turns out everyone else in the county thinks so, too.
This idea turns the theoretically brooding Forrest, who barely speaks except with a displeased grunt, into an intermittent existential philosopher. Out of nowhere, he will tell a guy on the street that time is a mystery and that life turns on a dime, before bopping him with some brass knuckles. And he gives Jack a completely incomprehensible speech about fear and death and how you must have fear in order not to die, or you must die if you are to fear, or something.
Half an hour in, I began to long for Burt Reynolds to drive up in a Trans-Am and announce he was Gator McKlusky, the character he played in the exuberant bootlegger movie White Lightning. He would have twinkled his eye, crinkled up his ’stache, and laughed that two syllable “ha-ha” the way he did in his prime.
It would have made no sense. But it would have been fun. Which is exactly what Lawless isn’t.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.