Review: Lawless – Good, but not flawless

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Lawless Movie PosterThe new prohibition-era film, Lawless, about a family of moonshiners in the Appalachian Mountains of 1920’s Virginia, is much like the distilled spirits at the center of its story – rough, hard-hitting, flammable and often entertaining, but also unrefined and sometimes mind-numbing.

Lawless is based on the book, The Wettest County in The World, by Matt Bondurant, the real-life grandson and nephew of the central characters that this film is based on. The story was adapted for the screen by Renaissance man Nick Cave, who also provides a very entertaining and bluesy soundtrack. The movie is directed by John Hillcoat, who is best known for his films based on Cormac McCarthy books, The Road and Blood Meridian (filmed as The Proposition).

The Franklin County, Virginia, Bondurant brothers are bootleggers and local legends, who are both feared and respected by county law enforcers and the other local moonshiners. Forrest (Tom Hardy) is the low-key leader of their underground business, Howard (Jason Clarke) is the muscle-man who samples a little too much of his own product, Jack (Shia LaBeouf) is the driver and also the youngest and weakest of the brothers. The group of redneck gangsters is rounded out by Cricket Pate (Dane DeHaan), who designs their stills and rotgut recipes, and repairs their vehicles.

The local law officers are all bought and paid for by the county’s moonshine runners, but as the film begins, a Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce ), from Chicago, tries to muscle in on the action and he threatens to shut down the small time bootleggers if they don’t ante-up. Forrest is a war vet who doesn’t take kindly to being told what to do, so a battle soon wages between the Bondurants, the corrupt law officers and the other moonshiners who are going along with Rakes’ demands.

There are also side stories that involve Jack’s courtship of Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), the local preacher’s daughter; as well as a romantic aside between Forrest and Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a waitress who works at the brother’s gas station/restaurant. Neither of these subplots advance the story in this film and they are its weakest and altogether unnecessary links.

The standout performance in Lawless comes from Guy Pearce, who plays Deputy Rakes as an effeminate, but deadly dangerous, lawman on the take. He’s a dastardly “fancy-Dan” and the type of villain you love to hate. The character was a stretch for Pearce, who usually plays more endearing and heroic parts, but it’s good to see him covering new ground (both here and in Prometheus, as Peter Weyland, from earlier this summer.)

Tom Hardy as Forrest Bondurant is an imposing figure, still carrying his bulked-up weight from playing Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. His character in Lawless grows on you and in the end is quite sympathetic. But unfortunately, this is Hardy’s second role in a row where he plays a character that is very difficult to understand. Like Bane, Forrest’s voice is muffled and grumbly and he communicates mostly in grunts it seems. There is probably some decent dialogue by Nick Cave here that is lost in the grumbled enunciation. I’m looking forward to seeing Hardy in a part where I can understand him.

Regarding Shia LaBeouf, I try remaining objective in not letting an actor’s real life and personality interfere with my enjoyment of a movie, but this upstart’s recent rants against the film industry that has made him an extremely wealthy young man have really irritated me and it was hard to watch his performance and not think, “this guy is really nothing special.” He does an adequate job as the cocky Jack Bondurant, but his acting is certainly not at the level he thinks it is.

Gary Oldman is in this film briefly, playing Floyd Banner, a gangster/mob boss with a Tommy-Gun tendency. He only has enough screen time to shoot up a car (for no known reason) and awkwardly partner up with LaBeouf’s character to buy his goods. I would have much preferred seeing the pointless romantic pieces of this movie set aside and allowed for more Oldman time – what a waste.

Lawless is a fine and interesting film that does a pretty decent job of capturing a bygone era, but it has many pieces that felt fragmented or slapped together like one of its redneck distilleries made out of piecemealed parts.

This is a very violent film that also contains a couple of gratuitous nude sequences similar to 1970s gangster films like The Traveling Executioner, A Bullet for Pretty Boy and Bloody Mama – but without the gritty pulp feel. Director Hillcoat might have been better served to go “full-pulp” on this film, instead of trying to be both a period drama and a hardcore gangster flick – that sort of film can be done (see Bonnie & Clyde), but Lawless isn’t it. Grade: 7/10

A quick history lesson for those who might be wondering what the heck is going on in this movie. From 1920 to 1933, the United States of America was officially a “dry” country, meaning that the imbibing of alcoholic beverages was illegal. But, this didn’t prevent people from making and partaking in the illegal substance (much like the current “war on drugs” we’re experiencing today.) The law prohibiting alcohol use just made once law-abiding citizens into criminals and sparked all sorts of other illegal activities like bootlegging, corruption, violence and murder. If you are interested in the prohibition-era, one of craziest periods in our country’s history, check out the very entertaining and informational PBS documentary, Prohibition, by renowned filmmaker Ken Burns.

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