In the late 1960s, the pioneering rock band the Velvet Underground recorded the hard-charging song “White Light/White Heat,” which supposedly evokes the rush of a methamphetamine injection, through both its lyrics and its pulsating bass line. A cover version of “White Light/White Heat” provides a most thrilling sequence in “Lawless,” a drama set in the rural South in the 1930s, without feeling like an anachronism. The Bootleggers’ rollicking bluegrass version serves to bridge roots music with the Velvets’ prototype of punk rock, while the words could just as easily refer to white lightning moonshine, linking the illegal intoxicants of different generations.
Plus, “White Light/White Heat” simply provides a cracking soundtrack tune, with a propulsive melody that supercharges a montage of outlaw brothers loading bottles of illegal spirits onto trucks and speeding along narrow mountain roads. The song harks back to the banjo music of Depression-Era bank getaways in “Bonnie and Clyde” and anchors one of the most entertaining, must-buy soundtracks since “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
Australian musician Nick Cave, best known as the front man for the Bad Seeds, wrote the “Lawless” screenplay, so it’s no surprise that music would play such a commanding role in the film. It’s not fair to say that the songs upstage the story, because the impeccable photography and editing also enhance our experience of the music. The soundtrack nevertheless proves more memorable and innovative than the narrative aspects of the movie, a slick and competent but at times generic period piece about rebellion and individuality.
Cave adapted the novel “The Wettest County in the World” by Matt Bondurant, who penned a fictionalized version of the lives of his grandfather Jack and two great-uncles, Forrest and Howard, all legendary bootleggers in Franklin County, Virginia. Howard (Jason Clarke) and Forrest (Tom Hardy) are crafty bruisers so tough and well armed that they have a local reputation for being indestructible. Kid brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf) knows cars and is eager to join the family business but seems too mild-mannered for the work.
“Lawless” begins with a 1931 crackdown on illegal distilleries and includes an introductory shot of an Appalachian Mountains range lighting up with moonshine caches set ablaze. Oppressing the Bondurants’ self-determination is Special Agent Charles Rakes (Guy Pearce), a Chicago lawman — at least in name — visiting Appalachia to ensure that all the moonshiners work for the same corrupt politician. The film muddies the differences among various criminal enterprises and law enforcement agencies, but the Bondurants prove to be equivalent to a mom-and-pop operation vs. Wal-Mart as well as Robin Hood vs. the Sheriff of Nottingham. Pearce makes a splendidly loathsome villain, with a rooster’s swagger belying his dandyish outfit, with bow tie, gloves and hair slicked back. It’s as if Alfalfa of “The Little Rascals” grew up to be a mob enforcer.
Despite its backwoods setting, “Lawless” follows the formula of numerous gangster films, with escalating violence against ruthless rivals and an initially innocent character taking up arms in the name of loyalty and revenge. LaBeouf remains young and charismatic enough to give Jack a compelling narrative arc that’s as much a coming of age as a baptism of blood. His charm shines through when he’s not sharing the screen with giant robots from outer space. Mia Wasikowska plays his love interest, who belongs to a deeply religious foot-washing sect and has a luminous beauty comparable to the subject of a Vermeer painting.
Jessica Chastain also provides a female counterpoint to the brutal male conflicts as a former big-city showgirl seeking a quiet life in the remote mountains. She has some tender, romantic scenes with Hardy, who dials back his performance so far that at times he merely grunts in amusing, barely audible syllables. “Lawless” is the kind of Southern film in which spitting proves more emphatic than most of the sentences. Disappointingly, it keeps Hardy’s character on the sidelines for long stretches and similarly holds back on Gary Oldman’s intriguing turn as a tommygun-toting mob boss.
Filmed around Atlanta, “Lawless” captures the autumnal splendor of the South’s wooded hills better than most Hollywood movies. But despite its strengths of photography, acting and score, the film offers little that we haven’t seen before. (Cave previously collaborated with Pearce and “Lawless” director John Hillcoat on “The Proposition,” a Western set in the Australian Outback, with similarly bloody imagery and underwritten screenplay.)
Earlier this summer, Hardy and Oldman both appeared in “The Dark Knight Rises,” which had plenty of flaws but also an unmistakable ambition to push genre storytelling and violent themes into original territory. “Lawless” ultimately sounds too much like a cover version of someone else’s composition.
“Lawless.” With Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy. Directed by John Hillcoat. Rated R. 115 minutes. At area theaters.