If you’ve been telling yourself, “Nobody has made a movie about Prohibition-era moonshiners and bootleggers in a long while, and I’m just aching to see one,” then you’re in luck. “Lawless” was made for you.
If you belong to the other 99 percent of the world’s population, you’re more likely to greet “Lawless” with mild curiosity, possibly for the chance to see what Tom Hardy, Bane from “The Dark Knight Rises,” looks like without a mask obscuring his face.
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Just one week after “Hit & Run” revived 1970s car-chase comedies, “Lawless” invokes another subgenre of the drive-in circuit, tales of redneck rebels taking on corrupt lawmen (this trend culminated in the TV show “The Dukes of Hazzard”).
“Lawless” takes place in 1931, shortly before Prohibition would wind down, and is set in Franklin County, Virginia. Thanks to the hundreds of moonshine stills hidden in its hills, Franklin was dubbed “the wettest county in the world,” which was the film’s original title and the name of the novel, by Matt Bondurant, on which it is based.
The wiliest moonshiners in Franklin County are the three Bondurant brothers, who did exist in real life (novelist Matt Bondurant is grandson to one of the brothers). Hardy plays the oldest brother, level-headed Forrest, who is reputed to be indestructible after surviving an attack that killed the rest of his squad in World War I. Shia LaBeouf plays the youngest brother, ambitious but foolhardy Jack.
Jason Clarke plays the other brother, hard-drinking and heavy-fisted Howard. A true example of middle-child syndrome, Howard doesn’t have much bearing on the plot.
As the story opens, an easy alliance exists between the moonshiners and the sheriff (Bill Camp). They supply him with shine, and he leaves them alone. Soon Virginia sends in a “special deputy,” Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), to shut down the county’s stills.
Rakes first lets the moonshiners know they can continue to operate if they deal him into their business and give him a hefty cut of the profits. The rest of the county’s shiners acquiesce, but not Forrest. “I’m a Bondurant,” he says, “and we don’t lay down for nobody.”
And so the war between the Bondurants and Rakes begins. At least in theory. The conflict simmers for a long, long time before reaching a boiling point. Rakes snipes away, but Forrest refuses to launch a counterattack. He suffers indignities and assaults that would send even the calm and calculating Michael Corleone raging down the warpath.
Director John Hillcoat (“The Road”) uses this extended period of inertia to luxuriate in the era’s milieu and explore the relationships among characters. Forrest hires “city girl” Maggie (Jessica Chastain) to tend bar at the brothers’ honky tonk. He is attracted to her, but too shy to express his feelings. She is not as shy.
Meanwhile, Jack aggressively pursues an unlikely sweetheart, Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), daughter of the local preacher. Jack also idolizes big city gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman, in a small but pleasing role) who is quick to wield his Tommy gun. “He looked like he had a distinctive vision,” Jack says after witnessing Banner gun down a rival.
Jack’s best friend is Cricket (Dane DeHaan), who can’t walk straight but is a genius at distilling liquor and souping up delivery trucks. It is difficult to resist comparisons between “Lawless” and “Bonnie and Clyde,” and Cricket is clearly this movie’s version of the Michael J. Pollard character, the nearest to innocent of the bunch – a status that seals his fate.
The characters often invoke “the city” to set themselves apart as heroic outsiders and people of the land. The swank criminals they interact with invariably hail from Chicago, probably because the city is shorthand for Prohibition-era gangsterism. But it doesn’t make much geographical sense, given that Chicago is 690 miles away. Historical accuracy clearly wasn’t heavy on screenwriter Nick Cave’s mind.
Hillcoat has assembled a strong cast of fast-rising actors, and “Lawless” benefits from their many fine performances. Hardy’s Forrest is endearingly, even amusingly low-key. His grunts become eloquent.
Meanwhile, Pearce creates one of the most insidious screen villains in some time. Rakes is a preening thug. He walks the rural hills dressed like the maître d’ of a high-falutin’ Manhattan night club. He is also a fearsome sadist. “Lawless” is not a violent film overall, but like last year’s “Drive,” it contains spasms of shocking brutality.
As for LaBeouf, it is good to see him peel himself away from mindless blockbuster action. His acting career was a promising one before he signed onto the “Transformers” series. LaBeouf’s performance is fine, but the problem for him, and the biggest problem for “Lawless,” is that his character is even more insufferable than his “Transformers” hero.
To not mince words, Jack is an idiot. At the outset Forrest doesn’t believe Jack is ready to join the family business, and Jack proves him right time after time. Every decision Jack makes, every action he take puts the business in jeopardy, and often puts family and friends in physical danger.
Forrest and Howard put up with Jack because he is kin, but we in the audience feel no such allegiance. We know they would be better off if Rakes bumped Jack off early in the second act.
The performances and the sincerity of Hillcoat’s vision make “Lawless” worth a look. The period details are perfect, even if they are seen through the haze of Benoît Delhomme’s flat, digital cinematography. But despite the highly charged backdrop of bootlegging and violence, the plot spends most of its time marinating. We also shouldn’t find a main character so annoying, even if he is a criminal.
2 1/2 stars
Rated R for strong bloody violence, language and some sexuality and nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes
Who’s in it: Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Jessica Chastain, Guy Pearce
What’s it about: Three moonshining brothers (Hardy, LaBeouf and Jason Clarke) find their business threatened when hard-nosed lawman Pearce comes to their rural Virginia county toward the end of Prohibition. Allegedly based on a true story.