Lawless, director John Hillcoat's follow-up to the Cormac McCarthy adaptation The Road, is little more than a testosterone-slicked period melodrama. But on its own limited terms, it's brutally effective, an outlaw drama about real-life Prohibition-era bootleggers that traffics in heightened emotions, corn-pone humor and over-the-top violence.
It's the latest in a fruitful partnership between Hillcoat and songwriter-turned-screenwriter Nick Cave, who last collaborated on the grim, bloody Western The Proposition. Here again, blood matters — a point that Tom Hardy's beefy bootlegger, Forrest Bondurant, drives home to his little brother, Jack (played by Shia LaBeouf).
When Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a crooked cop from Chicago, tries to get protection money from the Bondurants, the interloper brings out the contrast in the brothers. Jack tries to adapt to the shifting power hierarchy, while Forrest stubbornly sits and waits for an opening. Forrest, who believes the legend of his own invincibility, gets many chances to strike back at Rakes. But times are changing for the Bondurants, and that means the relatively meek Jack may soon inherit the Earth.
If Lawless is at heart a clash of masculine wills, its dearth of strong female characters is part of what keeps it from joining the ranks of classic gangster movies like Gun Crazy or Bonnie and Clyde. Hillcoat and Cave sketch the men with vicious zest and tellingly sleazy detail — you get a good idea of who Rakes is when you see the black woman he's sleeping with positioned on a newspaper on his hotel bed — but the women get short shrift. Most underwritten is one of the movie's leads, the former stripper played by Jessica Chastain. As Maggie, Forrest's love interest, she's fleshed out with only a couple of interstitial scenes, remaining a forlorn decorative object.
Had there been more to Maggie, there might have been more substance to Lawless' revisionist interpretation of family as a modern tribalist group that now includes lovers and friends. What's left, though, is a blunt, potent, often exciting crime drama. The movie's warring badass alpha males are fighting to the death for dominance, unaware that their days as top dogs are coming to an end.