Lawless Directed by John Hillcoat
Written by Nick Cave
Starring Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Guy Pearce
The Weinstein Company
Rated R | 115 Minutes
Release Date: August 29, 2012
Directed by John Hillcoat (The Road) and based on Matt Bondurant‘s 2008 novel The Wettest County in the World, Lawless follows the legendary exploits of the Bondurant brothers in Prohibition-era Franklin County, Virginia, who made a living by bootlegging Moonshine across county lines and wheelin’ and dealin’ with Chicago mobsters.
Adapted into a screenplay by Nick Cave (of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) Lawless stars Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, and Jason Clarke as Jack, Forrest, and Howard Bondurant, respectively, rebellious good old boys with a knack for moving white lightning through the Appalachian Mountains.
Business is good until Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a particularly brutal, prideful gentleman from Chicago, shows up on behalf of the District Attorney. Rakes wants a cut of the profits made by Franklin’s legendary bootleggers. To paraphrase the immortal Hall and Oates, the Bondurants can’t go for that (no can do). It’s North vs. South all over again as the Virginian outlaws battle the big-city scumbag who threatens their way of life.
A cut of the moonshine profits isn’t all Rakes is after, he’s got his eye on Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain), a dancer-turned-waitress who’s grown fond of the gruff, stoic Forrest Bondurant. Pearce is absolutely terrifying as Rakes, a brutal man with a taste for malice and torture. His performance is reminiscent of Heath Ledger’s Joker, a man who takes pleasure in his work and savors his despicable acts.
Chastain is fantastic (as usual) as the sultry, seductive Beauford. Shia LaBeouf turns in his best performance as the youngest (and most ambitious) brother, Jack – not counting Even Stevens or that one time he showed up in The X-Files, of course.
Tom Hardy, still hulked-out after his turn as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, seems to struggle in finding the balance to his character, who is the strong-and-silent type. At times Hardy underplays Forrest, offering thousand-mile stares and the occasional grunt under his breath, becoming more of a caricature than a three-dimensional human being. To his credit, Hardy creates a character that is more than a mere mortal – an invincible symbol of the strength of the South.
Overall, I found Lawless to be an entirely enjoyable film that feels less like Hillcoat’s previous work and more like a companion piece to Michael Mann’s 2009 biographal-crime drama, Public Enemies. While the film has its faults and tends to drag when mobsters aren’t shooting up small-town Virginia with tommy guns, there’s plenty to appreciate here.
On a personal note, I’m originally from Giles County, Virginia – a few counties over from Franklin which still, to this very day, is notorious for its moonshine. While the film was shot exclusively in Georgia, the scenery, composed of dirt roads and covered bridges, perfectly captures the desolate, untouched landscape of the Appalachian region and those rural communities that remain untouched by time.
Like The Proposition and The Road, Lawless is a film characterized by its isolation and brutality, taking clear-cut protagonists and antagonists and ditching them in an environment that is unforgiving and violent. While it fails to be as emotionally devastating or visually striking as Hillcoat’s prior films, Lawless is a strong late-summer gangster film to close out a blockbuster season of superhero movies, countless sequels, and pointless remakes.