Directed by John Hillcoat. Starring Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Guy Pearce 16 cert, general release, 115 min

Despite the quality of the ingredients, this Prohibition-era crime picture goes from muddled to disastrous, writes DONALD CLARKE

IT’S HARD TO imagine a more delicious prospect. Nick Cave and John Hillcoat, respectively writer and director of the magnificent Australian western The Proposition, reunite to examine a family of notorious real-life bootleggers from an unsavoury corner of Virginia.

Shia LaBoeuf plays Jack, a younger, cleverer member of the Bondurant clan. A more than usually massive Tom Hardy plays the indestructible Forrest Bondurant. Cave uses cleverly arranged bluegrass versions of The Velvet Underground’s White Light White Heat – a song soaked in heroin – to remind us that some class of prohibition is still afoot. Nothing can possibly go wrong here.

The structure of this review will, of course, have alerted you that we’re not talking about any sort of masterpiece. You couldn’t call Lawless bad. The film has a gorgeous earthy texture and the outbreaks of violence are alternately exhilarating and properly appalling. But, adapted from a book by Matt Bondurant (grandson of the real Jack), the film never manages to clank past second gear.

Clouds of incident prove no substitute for story. The female characters – Jessica Chastain as an enigma; Mia Wasikowska as a saintly preacher’s daughter – are so insubstantial they almost reach full-on translucence. Nobody seems to have any idea how to end the blasted thing. Gary Oldman is criminally underused.

There is something of The Godfather about the picture’s opening sections: Jack grows into the crime business in the manner of Michael Corleone; the uncontrollable Forrest has the animal energy of Sonny. All their plans begin curdling when Special Agent Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce) glides into town.

Whereas, for the most part, the film comes across as a competent muddle, it actually becomes full on disastrous when Pearce is on screen. Speaking in a strange fluty voice, camply pulling on gloves like Marlene Dietrich in a Weimar revue, he offers us a villain from an entirely different, more fantastic genre of movie. The Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was a less heightened figure. The Evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs seems, in comparison, like a character from a Mike Leigh film. What in the name of tarnation did Guy think he was up to?

It’s by far the oddest aspect in a film that too often settles for the ordinary and the unimaginative. Everybody involved will go on to do better work.

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