There’s no shortage of blood in Lawless, the intense dramatization of Prohibition-era moonshiners in Franklin County, Va., notorious for its brazen manufacture of gasoline-grade, blindness-inducing alcohol in stills that dotted the Virginia mountainsides. The illegal manufacture, transport and selling of alcohol was as vital a crime in Franklin as it was in Chicago, which meant the proud hillbillies were just as game for a bit of the ol’ ultraviolence as any squad of Capone’s goons. There was money to be made, and it often involved a jar of whiskey and a pint or six of blood on the side.
The kings of this dangerous trade in Lawless are the Bondurants, three long-orphaned brothers with a local reputation as survivors, good ol’ boys, and not above sneaking a little moonshine to the local sheriff to keep their growing inter-county liquor trade booming. Forrest (Tom Hardy, The Dark Knight Rises), the oldest, is the taciturn ringleader and enjoys reverence from the locals after beating the fever that killed both his parents. Howard (Jason Clarke, TV’s “The Chicago Code”) is the muscle and follows Forrest’s lead when it comes to shady dealings. Trailing behind is young Jack (Shia LaBeouf, Transformers) , the “runt of the litter,” the little brother with big dreams of gangster glory out to prove himself worthy of the family reputation.
The Bondurants’ operation takes a hit with the arrival of a new out-of-town sheriff, who brings with him a Federal enforcer named Rakes (Guy Pearce, Lockout). The new law in town is willing to let the Bondurants keep going as long as they play by their rules (so, bribery, basically), a situation Forrest makes it clear isn’t going to happen. Forrest’s defiance puts them in Rakes’s crosshairs, and the conflict between them steadily escalates as their operation grows, thanks to Jack’s ambitious plans, inspired by a chance run-in with a local kingpin (Hardy’s The Dark Knight Rises co-star Gary Oldman, in what amounts to an extended cameo). The boys aren’t all about stills and guns, however, as Jack falls for a snow-white preacher’s daughter (Mia Wasikowska, Alice in Wonderland) and Forrest tries to grapple with his burgeoning feelings for Maggie (Jessica Chastain, The Help), a big-city femme fatale on the run who takes a job at the boys’ store.
Though LaBeouf is ostensibly the film’s lead, narrating the Bondurants’ rise to power and his personal indulgence in the glamor of gangsterhood, Lawless really belongs to Hardy, a million miles away from his The Dark Knight Rises character. Hardy’s Forrest, a shambling mountain of a man with about as big of a vocabulary, leads his clan with quiet, confident intensity that still betrays some emotion when confronted with something he doesn’t understand – like, say, the attention of Maggie. It’s a performance that LaBeouf, even if he weren’t playing the little brother with something to prove, can’t really compete with, and attention wanders when focused on LaBeouf’s crackpot schemes and chaste romance. The movie crackles with Hardy’s presence, and suffers when focus shifts back to LaBeouf. Of the rest of the cast, all of whom commit to their roles with gusto, only the usually stellar Pearce is an off note. Seemingly imported from another movie altogether, Pearce plays Rakes as comically effete and transparently psychotic, a strange injection of operatic grandeur into a movie that otherwise revels in the dirt and sweat of its characters. It’s a good performance that’s tonally at odds with the grit the rest of the film strives for, and jarring because of it.
In the hands of director John Hillcoat, who handled another harsh landscape in The Road, the film is beautifully shot. The script is by musician Nick Cave, who had previously collaborated with Hillcoat on the excellent, sparse Western, The Proposition. Lawless features the brutal, no-nonsense sensibilities the two brought to that movie. The world of the Bondurants is a harsh one, and Cave does his best to show good guys doing bad things and bad guys doing worse things. It never flinches, and this is the movie’s finest trait: there’s an emotional honesty behind the shock value. Lawless isn’t likely to go down as the best example of its kind, but it approaches its characters and its setting with such dedication it’s hard not get swept up in it. It goes on a bit too long and struggles a bit when the plot reaches beyond the brothers' criminal struggles, but Lawless is nonetheless a ripping yarn about redneck Robin Hoods worth watching.
Rating: 3 Stars
Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Guy Pearce, and Gary Oldman
Directed By: John Hillcoat
Written By: Nick Cave
Based On: “The Wettest County in the World” by Matt Bondurant
Produced By: Lucy Fisher, Douglas Wick, Megan Ellison, and Michael Benaroya
Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Running Time: Approximately 115 minutes
Genre: Drama, Crime
Release Date: Aug. 31, 2012