Based on a real hillbilly bootlegger war during Prohibition, “Lawless” aspires to “Godfather” gangster status. It has guns, violence and mob ethics. Missing is film master Francis Ford Coppola’s sinister serenity that makes his crime classic such a beautiful bloody ballet.
Novelist Matt Bondurant taps into his personal family lore for his book, “The Wettest County in the World,” from which “Lawless” writer/composer Nick Cave derives the screenplay.
Top quality acting brings more color than the Appalachian autumn leaves to this plush production. Still, the narrative limps along like the broken down jalopies hauling the illegal hooch to the inevitable stabbings and shootouts.
Amazingly, the most authentic hayseed-sounding actors are English or Australian. Fresh from fighting Batman as Bane (“The Dark Night Rises”) is Londoner Tom Hardy as Forrest, the grunting, growling oldest Bondurant brother, with a reputation for Rasputin-like invincibility.
There’s middle brother Howard, played by Aussie Jason Clarke. The family enforcer, he howls like a wolf at the first sign of trouble, while continually slurping the family’s illicit liquor.
American star Shia LaBeouf has the weakest corn-pone accent as the uppity runt of the litter, Jack. His taste for fine clothes, fancy cars and preacher’s daughter Bertha (Mia Wasikowkska) leads corrupt Chicago lawman Charley Rakes (a dandified Guy Pearce) to the secret still and certain death for its soft-hearted cripple caretaker, Cricket (Dane DeHaan).
In “The Godfather,” it’s the heroin pusher. The “Lawless” bad egg is Rakes. While local cops are happy to have their share of hooch, Rakes tries to control them and muscle out mob boss, Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman).
Things get ugly, when Forrest’s girl, Maggie (Jessica Chastain), is sexually assaulted and Cricket is killed.
But even a slam-bang finale does not a “Godfather” make.
Try as he may, director John Hillcoat misses the mark of a master.