I can envisage Lawless being the kind of movie that appeals to a particular kind of person, especially a certain type of American - we'll get to that in a bit. Set in prohibition-era Virginia, and based on a true story, our protagonists are the Bondurant brothers, Forrest (Tom Hardy), Jack (Shia LeBeouf) and Howard (Jason Clarke). They are their region's foremost source of illegal liquor. However, the residents of Franklin County see them in a welcoming light. The Bondurant's are simply providing a service that's highly in demand. This mindset stretches to Franklin County's law enforcement. They all get a cut of the merchandise, and apart from the puritanical local church, everybody's happy.
Things change once Special Agent Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce) arrives in town. Franklin County is a small, homespun town that has its way of doing things. Rakes is a "big shot" from the burgeoning metropolis of Chicago. Pearce plays him as unctuous, malevolent and avaricious. He demands that the Bondurants give him a substantial cut of their alcohol earnings, or there'll be hell to pay. Despite being the middle child, Forrest is the de facto leader of the trio. He doesn't take kindly to being given orders, and has no issue with letting Rakes know this.
The cast are all solid, without ever demanding your empathy or compulsion. Hardy is his normal domineering presence, but I wonder if he's the latest in a recent line of actors who have a muscular presence, made their names in low-budget indie fare, and are now suffering from overexposure. The same fate befell Russell Crowe, Eric Bana and Christian Bale.
As for the film, it begins at a funereal pace. It was if the plot was a dog wading through treacle, whilst chasing its tail in an attempt to get anywhere. However, the second act begins with a scene that mercifully jump-starts the story, and it makes for easier watching from then on.
Well, I say easier. The director/writer team of John Hillcoat and Nick Cave worked together on the 2005 film, The Proposition. That movie had a visceral, tactile feel to it. The same goes for Lawless. It's not a movie for the squeamish. The violence is indiscriminate and nasty. But it's a good fit for the era, and is the most positive thing to say about the film.
Lawless depicts a time in American history where the country was still finding its way as a global force. The movie is something of an allegory for old America vs new America; the folksy, old-timey, distrustful of the Federal government type, up against the smartly dressed, politicking type, who sees dollar signs wherever they go, fuelled by an insatiable lust for power. Whether it's an accurate portrayal of the nation at that time is a different issue, but it's definitely the way that the film depicts it.
The reason I mentioned at the top that Lawless may appeal to a certain type of American is the film's free and easy attitude towards ambition and violence. I wonder if this taps into an atavistic aspect of the American psyche. Despite self-styling itself as the world's greatest democracy, it's a country that was born out of brutal - if at times, necessary - violence, and holds dear the part of its constitution that espouses the "right to bear arms". Even in 2012, America can be a belligerent nation, using its military might as a badge of honour. I can't think of many other countries that have the word "Commander" as a moniker for their leader, or a place where military service would be considered a suitable breeding ground for a career in politics.
This digression of mine links to the temperament of the film. The hyper-masculinity of the story is depicted well, but never investigated in any depth. This is sadly to the film's detriment, as is its portrayal of women. There isn't anything overtly bigoted, partly because the female characters are so minor that there's little chance for any discernible sexism. Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska are both part of the cast, but their roles are so negligible that you wonder why they cast two high-quality and established actors like them in the first place? It would have made more sense to cast two unknowns instead. Apart from anything else, it would have saved money on the budget.