In the 1920s-set gangland drama Lawless, Tom Hardy sheds the metal face-hugger he wore in The Dark Knight Rises and shows you what an eloquent actor he can be. He plays Forrest Bondurant, the leader of a family of bootleggers in the Virginia hills. Several years into Prohibition, Forrest learns that his status as a lone-wolf operator is threatened. An effete psycho played by a wildly grotesque Guy Pearce leads a band of government flunkies in bed with the Mob — and they all want in on the action. To Forrest, though, running his moonshine racket as an independent business is his right as an American. Taking this stand means he’s going to face an army of goons, and Hardy, speaking in low, flat, almost musically macho tones, has the bruiser charisma of a caveman Kevin Costner. It’s not the money he’s clinging to — it’s the freedom.
Lawless is really a Western, with Forrest guarding his turf as fearlessly as Gary Cooper in High Noon or Warren Beatty in McCabe & Mrs. Miller. The film, written by Nick Cave and directed by John Hillcoat, is a sturdy piece of traditionalism with outré touches (like Mark Lanegan’s cover of the Velvet Underground’s ”White Light/White Heat,” the perfect anachronistic filigree for a story about white lightning). But Lawless still felt remote to me. The surrounding drama (Shia LaBeouf as the Bondurant kid brother, a greenhorn who learns to fight like a man; Jessica Chastain as a barkeep who swoons for Forrest) is stuffy and derivative. Hardy’s presence is compelling, but the film comes fully alive only when it turns bloody. At those moments, though, it has the kick of a mule. B