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Lawless Review


RATING:
(3 STARS)

It’s hard to think of a more appropriate title for John Hillcoat’s new Prohibition drama than Lawless (though the title of the novel the film is based on—The Wettest County in the World—is a close second). The film takes place in Franklin County, Virginia during the early 1930s—an area of the country where the finest of lines separates cop from criminal, principled hero from animalistic villain. But while the characters’ morals are constantly changing, one thing is certain: Lawless is a bloody good (emphasis on bloody) time at the movies.

Three men—brothers, actually—rule over the town’s extensive moonshining operation as the film begins. Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy) is inarguably the top dog. He’s the “silent, but deadly” type, as he rarely has more to say than a grunt or a one-word answer, but even the local law enforcement knows better than to get in Forrest’s way. It’s bad enough that he’ll gladly thrown down with anyone, but he also has brother Howard (Jason Clarke) and his oft-used brass knuckles in his corner.

The third brother is Jack (Shia LaBeouf). The runt of the Bondurant litter, Jack’s only used as a driver for his brothers. He longs to be bootlegger and a gangster like his brothers, but he’s more enamored with the fast cars and luxurious suits of national icon Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman). Reluctantly, Forrest agrees to let Jack in as a partner, but this move comes at the worst possible time. Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) has just arrived from Chicago to lead a crooked crackdown on Franklin County’s bootlegging operation, and Jack’s big dreams, inexperience, and hot temper (not to mention’s Forrest’s not-so-sunny disposition) are making the Bondurants his #1 target.

Jack is definitely the main focus of Lawless, and though his story is a familiar one, it’s expertly executed. Shia LaBeouf gives his best performance to date, imbuing Jack with an almost pathetic need to please while still maintaining a sense of masculinity that serves him well during the film’s climactic shootout. Jack’s actions and his occasional inability to act drive the plot along, and all the while, you’ll admire LaBeouf’s ability to transform himself on a dime from a giddy kid to a beat-up wannabe to an accomplished businessman.

LaBeouf, however, can’t touch Tom Hardy when it comes to sheer effectiveness and the ability to completely inhabit his role. So often, the guy doesn’t need to say a single word to elicit emotion in us. Some of his biggest laughs come from an oddly timed grunt, and some of the film’s most frightening moments are ones when Forrest sends his steely stare in the direction of an adversary.

Throughout the film, the love lives of both Jack and Forrest come into focus. The former has his eyes on the demure daughter of a local preacher (played by Mia Wasikowska), while his older brother quietly falls for Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain), a newcomer in town looking for a way to escape and forget about her depressing past in Chicago. Both subplots are weak links in Lawless‘ overall story, but Jack’s is particularly problematic. Wasikowska never really establishes her character, but Nick Cave’s screenplay (which is better than solid on most fronts) doesn’t do her any favors. In one scene, she’s repulsed by Jack and his weak moral compass, but during their next encounter, she’s slyly fawning over him. With so much other great stuff going on around this aspect of the film, it’s sloppiness is all the more obvious and frustrating.

But Lawless has a lot of interesting, well-developed themes, and its strong sense of time and place only enhances the magnitude of what Hillcoat and Cave are exploring. While we’re getting introduced to Forrest, we learn about his supposed invincibility (the flu that killed Mom and Pop Bondurant was only a minor annoyance to their oldest son). Throughout the film, cops and bootleggers alike take their best shot at him, but he’s a tough dude—a legend, even—and during a time when America’s biggest heroes were really anti-heroes, Cave and Hillcoat explore exactly what that means to great effect.

Other than the limp romantic elements, the only real turnoff here is the extreme (potentially excessive) violence. The Road this is not. Lawless is a crowd-pleasing effort from a talented, up-and-coming duo. The performances are top-notch, and the production values are impeccable. Does it reinvent the gangster movie? No, but it’s one of the most enjoyable movies you can see during this typically off time of the year.

Source: John Gilpatrick

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