In Eisenstein’s seminal book The Film Sense, he relates a passage from Tolstoy to illustrate that an image alone is incomplete as representation. The passage depicts Vronsky, having just learned that Anna Karenina is pregnant, staring at his watch but being too distraught to recognize the time. “In his case,” Eisenstein writes of Vronsky, “the image of time created by the watch did not arise…It is not enough merely to see–something has to happen to the representation, something more has to be done with it, before it can cease to be perceived as no more than a simple geometrical figure and can become perceptible as the image of some particular ‘time’ at which the event is occurring. Tolstoy points out to us what happens when this process does not take place.” So does John Hillcoat, who, with Lawless (2012), has directed what looks like a Depression-era gangster picture but fails to be more than a simple collection of images of men in fedoras with tommy guns.
The Bondurant bootlegging brothers, led by the fearsome Forrest (Tom Hardy), are threatened by another gangster named Banner (Gary Oldman), who wants to cut into their profits. The law sends a man to their corner of Virginia in the person of Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), who says he’s from Chicago but sounds like he might be from Mars, to clean up the area. Brutality seems to be his preferred tool of law enforcement. Soon, the once indestructible Forrest is hospitalized and the vultures start swarming for the Bondurant business, and youngest brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf), who heretofore had been protected from the more unseemly aspects of illegal bootlegging, is forced to get his hands dirty and save the farm. There are dames too, of course; a moll who’s drawn to Forrest (Jessica Chastain) because of his appealing way of wearing his hat dipped low to cover his face and his favoritism to grunts over sentences, I guess and a church-going goody played by Mia Wasikowska that Jack is a-courting.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Hardy, who seems to be drifting toward a career as the heavy who doesn’t talk but suggests a deeper pain, is really good at suggesting that deeper pain, which is good because the script doesn’t let him suggest anything else. Forrest has become a bit of a backwoods legend and the locals say he’s immortal, an adjective he nearly earns through the course of the movie. He’s shot and stabbed many times in Lawless but every time (sometimes comically) he shakes it off. Chastain and Oldman give their usual superior performances (Oldman has a better part). LaBeouf can’t seem to make up his mind about whether he wants to be the scrappy tough guy or the frightened fish out of water, but he’s passable, and nobody is more alluring while wearing a bonnet than Wasikowska (between this, Albert Nobbs  and Jane Eyre , I can’t remember the last time I saw the top of that woman’s head), but I think that’s part of the problem. There seems to be a feeling that if they typecast the right actors, got the right locations, and gave everybody pinstriped three-pieces, that the movie would make itself. Lawless fails to jump from the screen to our imagination. Only Pearce’s strangely accented lawman commands our attention for any amount of time and that is mostly because he seems to have wandered onto the set from a stranger, better movie.
Like the problems of many movies, the ones here are born in the script, which isn’t terribly compelling. The story pits three factions at war with each other; the Bondurants, the rival gang and the cops, and much of the movie is spent watching them trade threatening messages. You send a body part in a jar to my hotel room, I’ll leave a tar-and-feathered guy on your porch. The sides swap barbs until the tensions reach a head, leaving us with the baffling ending which not only doesn’t resolve the story (the second gang is almost completely ignored in the final chapter of the movie, and we hardly see Gary Oldman in the second hour) but it’s also thematically bizarre.
The movie has a number of elements that make for a good picture, but they’re isolated and disconnected and they fight against each other. Nothing gels, leaving us with a dull mess. It’s like the movie is squirming to escape itself, a feeling the audience understands. Even when the movie settles in on a subplot it wants to develop, it does an incomplete job of it. The romance between LaBeouf’s and Wasikowska’s characters shows some potential but it doesn’t last long. Lawless has some of the feeling of an excited gradeschooler telling a story (“Oh! And then…”) but none of the energy. It has all the indications of being a handsome watch, but it doesn’t tell the time.