Directed by: John Hillcoat.
Written by: Nick Cave based on the book by Matt Bondurant.
Starring: Shia LaBeouf (Jack Bondurant), Tom Hardy (Forrest Bondurant), Jason Clarke (Howard Bondurant), Guy Pearce (Charlie Rakes), Jessica Chastain (Maggie Beauford), Mia Wasikowska (Bertha Minnix), Dane DeHaan (Cricket Pate), Chris McGarry (Danny), Tim Tolin (Mason Wardell), Gary Oldman (Floyd Banner), Lew Temple (Deputy Henry Abshire), Marcus Hester (Deputy Jeff Richards), Bill Camp (Sheriff Hodges), Alex Van (Tizwell Minnix), Noah Taylor (Gummy Walsh).
The year is 1931, and America still has prohibition. In the hills of Virginia, pretty much everyone makes moonshine – and no one really cares. They make it, and ship to speakeasies in the neighboring towns – the sheriff knows, but because he is also a customer, he lets them go about their business. The Bondurant boys are the unofficial leaders of the bootleggers – mainly because they have the respect of everyone around them, and have a reputation for becoming violent if need be. You leave them to their business, and they’ll leave you to yours – just don’t cross them. But there is a new prosecutor in town, and although he doesn’t want to shut the moonshiners down, he does want a piece of the action to allow it to continue. And to get that point across, he has brought in a new “Special Deputy” – Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) – from Chicago. Rakes thinks that making these hillbillies toe the line will be easy – but he didn’t count on the Bondurant boys.
There are three Bondurant’s. The oldest is Howard (Jason Clarke), a war veteran with a short fuse, and a taste for whiskey. He may not have a lot of brains, but you certainly do not want to get in his way. The middle one is Forrest (Tom Hardy), who speaks in short sentences, and sometimes merely grunts. He runs things, and has a way of looking at you from his porch that shows you don’t want to mess with him. And then there is Jack (Shia LaBeouf), the youngest. He doesn’t have the brute strength of either of his brothers – but he may just be the smartest of the three – perhaps even a little too smart. It’s because he gets too cocky that things end up getting so damn violent.
And make no mistake – Lawless is one of the most violent movies this year. Through the course of this movie there will be countless beating, shootings, stabbings, slashed throats, broken necks, explosions and even an off screen rape. Anyone who knows director John Hillcoat’s previous films will not be surprised by this level of violence – after all, his last two films were the Peckinpah style Western The Proposition and the Cormac McCarthy adaptation The Road, both of which are at least as violent as this film. But in both of those films, the violence is harsher – and hits the audience harder than it does here. The violence in those films felt like real violence – as opposed to Lawless where it feels much more like movie violence. And I think that’s because the characters in those other films were stronger – deeper characters that you really get to know, and the actors get to sink their teeth into. The performances in Lawless are all quite good. I especially liked Tom Hardy’s quiet intensity – he moves like he speaks, slowly and deliberately, but he is still quick enough to make you pay if you cross him. This is another of his wonderful, slow burn performances that makes me think of him as a young Brando. I also loved Guy Pearce’s snarling, unrepentantly evil Rakes – he dresses sharply, and speaks with an evil, nasally voice, and also has ODC, and an obsession with germs. But even these two performances – as wonderful as they are – really are one note and don’t offer much in the way of depth. No one really changes in the course of the movie – except maybe Jack, and it’s really more of his circumstances changing more than him. The rest of the cast is pretty much who you expect to be when the movie opens. I feel bad that the movie gave Gary Oldman absolutely nothing to do as famed gangster Floyd Banner (I do love his scene with the shovel though), and I don’t think that the two love interests – Mia Wasikowski’s preacher’s daughter and Jessica Chastain’s former showgirl – were necessary at all, especially since the movie chooses not to let either of these gifted actresses do much of anything.
So, no, Lawless is not a great film. But it is an expertly crafted one by Hillcoat – who gets the period detail just about perfect and keeps the film moving at a relentless pace. The best thing about the movie may just be the music – a mixture of old time hillbilly songs, new songs that sound like old time hillbilly songs, and even a version of Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat, done in the style, helps keep the movie humming along. So while Lawless may not be as good as the filmmakers hoped it would be, it is still more entertaining than most late summer releases are – and hell of good time at the movies.