Hillcoat and Cave have collaborated a long time, on music videos as well as the 1988 prison cult flick Ghosts ... of the Civil Dead and 2005 Australian Western The Proposition. That last was pretentious too — in exactly the way of one of Cave's glowering psuedo-traditional death ballads — but summoned up the necessary shocks and weight to pretty well pull off its own prairie Guignol classicism. Since then Hillcoat directed (and Cave scored) 2009's The Road, a Cormac McCarthy adaptation that was probably bound to fall short, and did, though not for want of trying.
The revenge-laden action in Lawless is engaging in a way The Road couldn't be, though the filmmakers are trying so hard to make it all resonant and folkloric and meta-cinematic, any fun you have is in spite of their efforts. Among the big cast, only Hardy manages to inject some humor — he makes Forrest's taciturn inarticulacy a joke about strong-and-silent machismo — and Pearce is ingeniously horrible. But everyone else seems to be playing stock figures lifted from better movies, especially (and predictably) the women. Mia Wasikowska plays an absurdity (the sheltered product of a religious sect who's nonetheless all worldly badinage when courted by LeBeouf's Jack), while Jessica Chastain's Chicago b-girl refugee is costumed and lit so she's like Jean Harlow in a Dorothea Lange photo, a laughable incongruity.
Needless to say, the rural Depression era is in other ways so exquisitely realized you can never quite believe it for a moment, from the location choices to the soundtrack Cave has laden with original songs with names like "Fire and Brimstone." The latter create a sort of tasteful-downer equivalent to the O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) album (using some of its contributors). It's pretty, but still an imitation of authenticity. Lawless proves you can't curate blood and thunder.
LAWLESS opens Wed/29 in Bay Area theaters.