To those with a smattering of knowledge, The Wettest County in the World suggests a vivid milieu of moonshine and bootleggers. Naturally, something so evocative—but potentially confusing—couldn’t be retained, so the movie adapted from Matt Bondurant’s book of that name, in which he relates the true adventures of his Prohibition-era relatives, is being released under the generic title Lawless, thereby calling to mind ... dudes with guns, basically. Since the film itself falls pretty squarely between evocative and generic, veering at times much too close to the latter, I suppose that’s fair enough.
Written by musician Nick Cave and directed by John Hillcoat, who previously collaborated on The Proposition, Lawless certainly doesn’t flinch from violence. The Bondurant brothers (Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke) just want to keep to themselves and make a tidy little profit from their still, but local law enforcement doesn’t take kindly to being deprived of their cut, calling in a psychopathic enforcer (Guy Pearce, nearly unrecognizable minus eyebrows) from Chicago. Cue a brass-knuckle beatdown, a horrifically explicit throat-slitting, a hail-fire of bullets and the hilariously ominous question, “Have you met Howard?” Meanwhile, Gary Oldman politely chews the scenery as a legendary rival and potential partner.
What follows is thoroughly familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a Tommy gun in a movie before, but still flavorful and rousing—especially when it comes to the showdown between Hardy’s taciturn Forrest Bondurant, whose thick neck juts incongruously from a proto-Cosby sweater, and Pearce’s memorably reptilian badass-cum-dandy. (LaBeouf, as the wimp in the middle who must prove himself, somehow seems to have built a career on being inoffensively bland.) Cave’s screenwriting still lags a long way behind his songwriting, but he’s developing a facility for terse period dialogue, and he provides Hillcoat with ample opportunity to indulge in pleasantly ludicrous, testosterone-fueled mayhem. If only they’d tried a bit harder to make the female characters—a stripper-turned-barmaid hot for Forrest (Jessica Chastain) and a saintly preacher’s daughter (Mia Wasikowska) romanced by LaBeouf’s Jack—more than mere dude accessories. I believe those two women can act, if you let them.