During the Prohibition era, the notorious Bondurant brothers – Jack (LaBeouf), Forrest (Hardy) and Howard (Clarke) – run a successful alcohol bootlegging business from their backwater town in Virginia. Problems arise, however, when corrupt Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Pearce) arrives from Chicago and demands a cut of the profits. When Forrest outright refuses, an ongoing war between Rakes and the Bondurants begins, with Jack, the youngest of the three, keen to prove himself to his tougher older brothers…
Despite splitting critical opinion down the middle, there’s little question that Lawless offers an accomplished and decidedly well-made crime drama. Certainly, something is missing, but talented Aussie director John Hillcoat and writing partner Nick Cave deserve credit for adapting Matt Bondurant’s novel (The Wettest County In The World, based on his ancestors) into an intense, brutal and good-looking near-epic. ‘Near’ being the key word here, as you get the feeling that cuts were made in order to attain a more audience-friendly running-time of under two hours.
But while certain subplots end up under-nourished as a side-effect (both Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska’s love interests are noticeably underwritten), the central bootlegging storyline is often engaging. Perhaps best described as a gangster-Western, Lawless isn’t a simplistic film of good vs. bad. Here, as is often the case with both genres, the outlaws are our heroes and they can be every inch as vicious as the antagonists. Along with one scene reminding us of this (where Jack walks in on Forrest and Howard removing some men’s testicles), there are a handful of striking images (such as the man tarred and feathered) and moments memorable for their brutality (none more so than a certain throat-slitting).
Still, the best thing about the film is its performances, and while not playing the lead, per se, the hulking Tom Hardy gives further proof that he’s easily the most exciting actor working today. Even with his pre-Bane frame (Lawless was shot immediately before The Dark Knight Rises) ‘hidden’ under a range of cardigans (hence, Tom Hardigan), Hardy remains a compelling, intimidating presence. Shia LaBeouf is the closest thing we have to a protagonist, meanwhile, and although it’s currently fashionable to dismiss or dislike him after a series of critically-mauled blockbusters, he offers his strongest work for some time. With these two taking the lead(s), Brotherhood‘s Jason Clarke gets short shrift as the third brother, but Guy Pearce is memorable as the repulsively sneering villain, while Chronicle‘s Dane DeHaan has a nice part and Gary Oldman is fun in what amounts to an extended cameo.
Despite splitting critical opinion down the middle, there’s little question that Lawless offers an accomplished and decidedly well-made crime drama. While there’s something elusive missing, it’s still an intense, brutal and good-looking near-epic.