Perhaps director John Hillcoat's point in making Lawless is that gangsters never learn. They never develop. They are, more or less, born as immature, violent sociopaths and they mostly die in the same way, often at the hands of another underdeveloped sociopath. If so, what a bleak, drawn-out way to be taught that, I suppose, worthy lesson. If not, then he missed his mark by quite a bit, failing to develop his main characters -- shedding their blood to no real end or purpose.
My strong suspicion is that the latter is the case (there's the whole ending, which I won't spoil here, that lends gravity to my suspicion), and that is truly a shame because, well, how much potential is there in a film that blends the aesthetic of Justified and Boardwalk Empire and boasts an ensemble cast of emerging stars like Tom Hardy and Jessica Chastain?
Lawless is all about the Bondurant brothers -- Jack (Shia LaBeouf), Forrest (Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) -- Prohibition-era bootleggers in rural Franklin County, Virginia, who bristle when Commonwealth's Attorney Mason Wardell (Tim Tolin) attempts to shake them down, seeking a cut of their profitable moonshine business. The Bondurants are essentially alone in deciding to stand up to Wardell, thus bringing down the wrath of his primary enforcer, Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a Special Deputy who hails from Chicago, squarely on their shoulders.
Forrest and Howard are fearless and brutally violent -- the local legend having it that the Bondurants are immortal/indestructible -- while their younger brother Jack, on account of his weak stomach for cutting off body parts, punching people in the throat with brass knuckles, etc., is relegated mostly to wheelman duty. It's never clear that Forrest and Howard might see that "weakness" as, you know, a good thing, which is probably what emboldens Jack to act like a petulant child for the rest of the film (more on that in a second). Anyway, the brutality of Forrest and Howard is matched only by the egomaniacal, creepy, eyebrow-less Rakes, who, not unlike Boardwalk Empire's Gyp Rosetti, takes just about everything personally.
Once this adversarial relationship is established, the rest of the film boils down to a series of shootouts and horrific bits of savagery perpetrated by Rakes against the Bondurants or vice versa, and, really, the only times it is even disturbing is when one of the lesser characters -- namely Maggie (Chastain), who helps run their store, and Cricket (Dane DeHaan), who assists with their bootlegging operation -- becomes a victim simply because of their association with the brothers.
There's nothing warm and cuddly about any of the Bondurants. Forrest and Howard are remorseless and barbaric. Jack, meanwhile, is unconscionably selfish even for a teenager, and he is cowardly to boot. The concept of consequences is foreign to him, meaning he's constantly putting those around him in danger; you'd think he'd be a little more careful with his ongoing courtship of a minister's daughter, Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), but no.
The Bondurants' unlikability is trumped only by that of Rakes'. Other than a brief cameo from Gary Oldman, Pearce is about the only player in Lawless who shines, creating a detestable villain who you absolutely will want to see go down in a hail of gunfire. I guess the problem is that I cared more about seeing Rakes' demise than I did about seeing the Bondurants bring it to pass. A great antagonist can make a movie, but it usually necessitates someone you're pulling for on the other side of the equation. Unfortunately, Lawless is sorely lacking in that department.