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‘Lawless’ is ‘Bonnie and Clyde’-Lite

As Forrest Bondurant, Tom Hardy grunts and sighs; he has a funny bow-legged walk; he does a little shuffle dance on the bank of a river at night, and falls into the water. When his throat has been cut, he holds the two flaps of skin together and walks 20 miles to the hospital. He is “invincible,” as the legend goes, or he is an actor having the time of his life and suggesting that he might be capable of playing Charles Laughton one day. It is in the spirit of playing anything from Quasimodo to Ruggles of Red Gap, that Tom Hardy, born in Hammersmith and raised in East Sheen (the polite parts of west London), is now the spiffiest moonshiner in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia in 1931, when the liquor was cooked in stills and had some of the properties of gasoline.

As you may recall, Hardy does English gents (Inception and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy); he has been Heathcliff and Bill Sikes on British television; he can do rascals with style (Bronson, The Take); and Bane in The Dark Knight Rises was his first monster. The story is that Bane, and beefing up for it, immediately preceded Lawless, so Hardy is carrying a good deal more weight than might have been likely in dirt-poor Virginia in 1931. He is beefy, over-fed and sleepy, but somehow Hardy is good enough to turn these liabilities into sultry assets.

“Based on a True Story,” the title insists, always a warning of fraud. This is the story of the three Bondurant brothers; the grandson of one of them, Matt Bondurant, wrote a novel, The Wettest County in the World (2008), that is the basis for this film. The real spur is to make one more rural gangster film in the tradition of Bonnie and Clyde, round up some attractive actors and let them loose. So it’s a picture based on an old movie formula, sharply observed, played with relish, and unashamed of how far it is from any searching truth. At the end of the film there’s a still photograph of the real Bondurants as lean, mean boys, as distant from the actors here as Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were from the gorgeous Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.

Does it matter? It’s up to you and how much fun you’re having. For myself, I found the movie got away with it—just. So the three Bondurant boys have a flourishing moonshine business, and no urge to quit the beautiful but desolate hill country and take themselves off to Chicago on the proceeds. So the film is cute enough to have Chicago come to them in the person of Maggie, who was a feathers dancer in a Chicago club but found that so grated on her delicate soul and milky skin she headed for the hills. Added to which she looks very like Jessica Chastain, does her bartending job in vivid red or green dresses, and is just as vivid when she strips off and inserts herself in Hardy’s bed. It’s a pretty scene but Hardy plays it unimpressed, of course. Maggie is just part of his legend.

The Bondurant kid, Jack (Shia LaBeouf), is trying to court the daughter of a strict, religious father, and this girl is played by Mia Wasikowska, with wit, grace and flirty glances she never learned from Dad. There’s a scene where she tries on a pretty dress Jack has bought for her that has magic to it.

Of course, a film like Lawless needs a very nasty guy to go up against the Bondurants. And here comes a dandy who should have stayed in Chicago and in the theater. He is special deputy Charlie Rakes, and he is Guy Pearce with touched up black hair savagely parted in the middle, foppish clothes, and the cruelty of a repressed pervert—he goes mad when someone calls him “a nance.” Like John Hillcoat, the director of Lawless, and like Wasikowska, Pearce is Australian. He did excellent work in Memento and L.A. Confidential, but as he ages he has sensibly gone for character parts—notably a sergeant in The Hurt Locker, Edward VIII in The King’s Speech and Monty Beragon, the best thing in the T.V. adaptation of Mildred Pierce. (He was the elderly Weyland in the recent Prometheus, but most of that part was cut.) In Lawless, if you cut him, you could fold the film up and go home.

Hillcoat (who made The Proposition and The Road—both with Pearce) is only at half-speed here. He seems to know not to disturb the genre material (written by the singer/songwriter Nick Cave). Gary Oldman is on board in a smallish part as a Chicago kingpin, presumably because he had always wanted to fire a tommy gun. There’s one incident that shows how far the film might have pushed the legend nonsense. Forrest is mugged and his throat is cut; we see him helpless and surely dying as the snow starts to fall. But Maggie, on an instinct, comes back to the house to see if he’s all right. That gets her raped by the thugs who carved up Forrest. Then we fade out and find Forrest in hospital, with a seam of stitches holding his head in place. Later still, it is said he walked all those miles to mercy. Then Maggie dashes his bravado and says she drove him. Whereupon a comic look of hurt comes upon Hardy’s face and he murmurs something about being sure he had walked. There is the seed here of a far better film, in which these Bondurants are drinking so much of their product they hardly know one day from the next.

Granted the violence and the nudity are more than the true period could have tolerated, this is a film that might have been made in the ’30s, content to let us revel in scenery (shot in Georgia) and very accomplished performers who know the iconographic rails well enough to do it without direction. It’s slight and casual to the point of laziness, but it’s straight fun, done with knowledge and a laconic pleasure. You could do far worse. Meanwhile Jessica Chastain and Guy Pearce deserve real parts, while Tom Hardy is going to become a bigger star, unless he gets too big (I’d guess he’s a 17-inch collar already) and bursts.