Tom Hardy must just hate being audible.
In case you had finally sorted out all of Bane’s weirdly post-dubbed, muffled, fey-Connery proclamations from behind that annoying mask in The Dark Knight Rises, director John Hillcoat’s Lawless provides another great challenge in Hardy dialogue recognition. Playing Forrest Bondurant, a legendary bootlegger of tree-trunk stature in Prohibition-era West Virginia, the actor allows us to hear his actual speaking voice for almost 25 full minutes of screen-time, even though it’s slightly encumbered by one of those weirdly ill-fitting Southern accents that Englishmen lay on way too thick every now and again.
Alas, a ghastly neck injury leaves him bleating unintelligibly during the second reel, and thus for the rest of the picture. Dude has something against being heard.
One of those curious misfires in which a lot of talented people are nowhere near their comfort zones, Lawless is based on Matt Bondurant’s 2008 book, The Wettest County in the World, a fictionalized account of his family’s bloody romp through the moonshine business back in the 1930s. Directed by Hillcoat and scripted by murder balladeer Nick Cave, who previously collaborated on 2005’s brutal Australian outback anti-Western The Proposition, Lawless seems torn between being a fanciful, folklore-filled gangster-movie melodrama and the filmmakers’ harsher, more punitive proclivities. Nobody wins.
Hardy stars as the almost mythological Forrest, a quiet inspiration of terror amongst Franklin County locals, all of whom buy into the legend that he’s some kind of immortal. (He is Tom Hardy, after all.) Brother Howard (Jason Clarke) is an even more monosyllabic slab of thuggery, and the two reign over the illegal liquor trade in their backwater burg until a couple of corrupt lawmen from Chicago come calling.
I almost forgot about Shia LeBeouf as Jack, the runt of the Bondurant litter and, for all intents and purposes, a walking anachronism. Not every performer can pass in a period piece, and LeBeouf is such a contemporary screen presence, you’ll keep expecting him to whip out an iPhone and start texting from behind the wheel of his jalopy.
But what Jack lacks in brute force, he makes up for in business acumen, siding with Gary Oldman’s dapper big-city gangster Floyd Banner and setting up a massive distribution network that turns cross-county into cross-country via an unwieldy number of montage sequences. Oldman makes a three-course meal out of the scenery in two entirely too short scenes. You’ll spend the rest of the movie waiting in vain for his return.
But instead, there are those pesky G-Men to deal with. Guy Pearce continues his recent crazy streak, slicking his hair back and shaving his eyebrows as a bought-and-paid-for federal vigilante who looks unnervingly like Bob Geldof at the end of Pink Floyd: The Wall. Every overwrought, spindly gesture outrageously overdoses on dastardliness. It’s either the bravest performance of the year or the silliest. Right now, I’m siding with the latter.
Lawless often feels like there are two movies going on at the same time, and they don’t intersect all that much. On one hand, we’ve got Jack’s rapid ascension to hillbilly Henry Hill status, putting on airs while trying to woo a churchy small-town girl (Mia Wasikowska) with his fancy cars, flashy threads and incessant musical interludes set to bizarre bluegrass covers. Then there’s this whole other movie in which Hardy growls unintelligibly while wearing cardigan sweaters, cutting off the genitals of unlucky mob enforcers and sending them to Pearce’s hotel room in jars. Jessica Chastain drops in for a supporting role, as she does in every movie, playing an umpteenth variation on the hooker with a heart of gold.
Forrest and Jack don’t talk to one another very often, but just because their performances don’t seem to exist in the same universe doesn’t mean the same should apply to their characters. There’s a bunch of promising anecdotes in Bondurant’s book, some larger than life and some much smaller, yet they all seem to have been haphazardly tossed onscreen with little concern for how these disparate pieces might eventually fit together.
The fizzle of a finale fits the picture’s strange schizophrenia. Hillcoat tries to ramp it up with intonations of mythic grandeur, while at the same time rubbing our faces in grit and period authenticity. The two approaches cancel each other out.
And I still couldn’t understand a word Hardy said.