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‘Lawless’ Review: The Moonshine is Clear, the Music is Slick, the Film’s a Mess

Snazzy production design and clever soundtrack choices can’t overcome the sketchy performances by Tom Hardy and Shia LaBeouf as Southern bootleggers

“Lawless” looks great and sounds even better, which would be terrific if this were a coffee table book with a companion soundtrack CD. But it’s a movie, unfortunately, which means we’re forced to endure an uninvolving script made no better by two often-charismatic leading men whose performances are as muddled as their garbled Appalachian accents.

The tale of the three Bondurant brothers and their adventures as moonshine-running bootleggers in Prohibition-era America is no doubt a compelling one, but you’d never know it from this listless screen treatment; “Lawless” is the kind of movie with so little narrative drive that far too many scenes feels like they could be the finale.

Forrest (Tom Hardy) is the middle sibling, and he mainly communicates through long stares and a series of intent-filled sighs and moans. Impetuous youngest brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf) is itching to prove himself worthy of the family business. There’s some mention of big-city mobster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), but his involvement with the goings-on feels so sketchy that it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that there’s half an hour of footage about his character on a cutting-room floor somewhere. Given that Oldman gives one of the film’s best performances in just a few scenes, his absence is felt all the more.

What passes for plot occurs when the local sheriffs stop amiably looking the other way at the Bondurants’ business after Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) comes to town. And lest we miss the point that Rakes is bad news, director John Hillcoat (“The Road”) presents him as a creepy dandy who seems to have teleported in from “Blade Runner” or Warren Beatty’s “Dick Tracy” — Pearce’s hair is always marcelled, his eyebrows are barely there, and he’s almost never seen without a bow tie. The sexually-frustrated character (it’s implied he’s a deeply self-loathing homosexual) is so joltingly cartoonish that he almost single-handedly undoes the film’s low-key naturalism.

Forrest and Jack fall in love along the way with waitress Maggie (Jessica Chastain) and preacher’s daughter Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), respectively. (Oldest brother Howard, played by Jason Clarke, barely registers, although maybe his role also got chopped to bits.) It’s a testament to these two actresses that they’re able to build characters seemingly out of thin air; “Lawless” gets interesting when its heroes go a-courting, but it’s the women who make it all work.

They also, it should be noted, don’t embarrass themselves with the dialect the way that Hardy and LaBeouf do. (Granted, Maggie is a Chicago transplant, so she doesn’t have to sound like a backwoods Virginian, but surely Chastain could have made it work if she’d had to.) Hardy’s an exceptional actor, and LaBeouf has a certain fizzy charisma, but they each twang embarrassingly every time they have a sentence or two to utter, and not even in a way that matches. They barely sound like guys who went to the same vocal coach, much less came out of the same womb.

Veteran musician Nick Cave earns the blame for the meandering script (based on Matt Bondurant’s fictionalized account of his family tale, “The Wettest County in the World”), but Cave does a much better job composing the film’s score (with Warren Ellis), along with several new (but period-appropriate) songs. They also throw in two different bluegrass-infused covers of the Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat” that would sound completely natural coming out of an old radio on the front porch of a country store.

The musicians, along with cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, art director Gershon Ginsburg and production designer Chris Kennedy bring the period alive and provide “Lawless” with its finest features. But with plotting and acting this scattershot, there’s only so much they can do.

Like spoiled rotgut in a shiny new jug, “Lawless” has a surface gleam that starts to fade once you pull the cork and start sipping.