Rating: 3 out of 5
An adaptation of the historical novel “The Wettest County in the World,” “Lawless” tells the tale, based on a true story, of the Bondurant brothers of Franklin County, Va. who worked as moonshiners and bootleggers during the Prohibition era.
Shia LaBeouf stars as Jack Bondurant, who is tired of being relegated to a supporting role in the moonshine operation by his elder brothers Howard (Jason Clarke) and Forrest (Tom Hardy).
Then, a new district attorney arrives in Franklin County and tasks his enforcer, Special Agent Charles Rakes (Guy Pearce), with taking down the Bondurant operation.
Rakes isn’t afraid to beat a man bloody with his gloved hands and Forrest Bondurant seems comfortable to let his set of brass knuckles do his talking; the two excessively brutal factions clash often and violently, and in a way that makes for a highly engrossing story.
Hardy and Pearce both give standout performances in “Lawless”, while Hardy’s quiet intensity serves as a perfect foil to Pearce’s frenetic energy.
Hardy has relatively few lines, and those he does have are nearly all spoken softly, almost mumbled. With a less competent actor, this might have been a disaster. But with Hardy, it underscores the immense physical presence of his character.
Pearce’s Special Agent Rakes –- a vile character who slicks his hair back and reeks of perfume -– is a stark contrast. After each interaction with the Bondurants, Rakes seems to lose a little bit more of his already thin hold on self-control. By the film’s climax, he appears totally deranged.
In fact, the film’s cast as a whole is superb. LaBeouf, in particular, is surprisingly good as the vulnerable Jack, who idolizes big-name gangsters and falls in love with a preacher’s daughter.
Jessica Chastain, who performs as a former dancer from Chicago who comes to work at the Bondurant’s bar as a waitress, successfully makes her instant connection to Forrest Bondurant real and true.
Bringing all the characters together is the absolutely stunning setting filmed by director John Hillcoat and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme. Several locations in Georgia stand in convincingly for the backwoods of Southwest Virginia.
The cinematography is dark, but so naturally beautiful that one is lulled into a false sense of harmony, only to be taken aback by the copious amounts of blood that are shed. The dichotomy of such gore in a place that looks so tranquil draws the viewers in closer to the story.
Lawless was written by Nick Cave of the band “Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds.” Cave is clearly talented as a screenwriter, although “Lawless” would perhaps be better if his screenwriting experience matched his decades of songwriting experience. Indeed, one of the few flaws of the movie is that the story doesn’t always flow consistently and scenes occasionally have an episodic feel to them. However, with a story of this size (in time span, number of characters and plotlines), at least part of that seems unavoidable.
Furthermore, Cave more than makes up for any script issues with his skilled creation of the film’s score. Cave deftly balances the line between overused and insufficient music, and most importantly, he lets silence hover when the scene calls for it.
Overall, even the more noticeable issues like that of uneven pacing are simply overshadowed by the film’s successes. A flawless cast and gorgeous setting ultimately combine to make “Lawless” a must-see movie of this fall.