Compared to director John Hillcoat’s previous movies, the flyblown outback drama The Proposition and the monochrome purgatory of The Road, Lawless is positively breezy. It may be set during the ensuing violence of the Prohibition era, but beneath the surface grit and grime lurks an entertaining period drama.
It’s the 1920s, and Franklin, Virginia’s reputation for illegal liquor production is such that it’s nicknamed The Wettest County in the World, the name of the book on which Lawless is based, and also its shooting title. Based on the true story of the Bondurant family, a group prolific moonshine producers, Lawless introduces Forrest (Tom Hardy), a mumbling Great War veteran convinced of his own invincibility, Howard (Jason Clarke) his shellshocked older brother who drinks almost as much alcohol as he sells, and Jack (Shia LaBeouf), the meek youngest brother who’s uncharitably described as the runt of the litter.
With the Mob getting rich from the Prohibition as moonshine is smuggled into Chicago from Franklin, the Bondurants discreetly reap the benefits, and by paying off the local cops guarding the bridges in and out of the county, establish a relatively peaceful equilibrium.
That balance of power is disturbed by the arrival of Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a greasy lawman from Chicago who resolves to purge Franklin of its criminals while at the same time indulging in his sadistic love of torturing and murdering suspects. As Jack grows from a timid youth to a smart-suited liquor baron, he barely notices that Rakes and his men are gradually closing in.
Tom Hardy is fantastic as the terse, cardigan-wearing elder brother, bringing both strength and tenderness to the role of the group’s alpha male and unlikely mother hen. LaBeouf’s almost as good as Jack, and it’s refreshing to see what he can do outside the constraints of the Transformers franchise. His character bears several passing similarities to Transformers’ Sam Witwicky – not least in his youthful arrogance and passion for shiny cars – but here at last is a movie with more drama than explosions, and LaBeouf’s more than equal to the challenge. Chronicle’s Dane LaHaan makes a great appearance, too, as Cricket, a desperately vulnerable science geek who helps maintain the family moonshine factory.
Then there’s Gary Oldman as Floyd Banner, who ranks among the coolest mobsters to appear on the big screen since Robert De Niro played Al Capone in The Untouchables. With his pencil moustache and Thompson machine gun, his brief appearance casts a long pall over the movie.
Theoretically, Lawless should belong to Guy Pearce, with his Heinrich Himmler-haired, downright evil law enforcer imbuing a palpable sense of menace. But set against the low-key performances elsewhere, it’s a bit of a lip-smacking, scenery-chewing performance, and could perhaps have benefited from a little more restraint.
Then again, this is a movie that’s painted in broad strokes. Even though it’s based on a true story, this is undoubtedly a Hollywood depiction of 30s rural life, and while the hard-edged violence of John Hillcoat’s earlier movies is present – all ugly gunshot wounds, cuts and knuckle duster bruises – Lawless is, as mentioned earlier, a far lighter film than The Proposition or The Road. Hope and goodness were in short supply in those films, whereas Lawless is populated by basically decent people just trying to get by; evil occasionally belches up from the depths, but its time is short, its victories hollow.
Lawless is the kind of drama that old Hollywood used to excel at. Nick Cave brings the correct mix of tenderness and toughness to the drama, but there’s a cloying sense of familiarity to certain scenes which blunts the film as a whole. After the unsentimental brilliance of Hillcoat and Cave’s last collaboration, it’s a little disappointing to see Jessica Chastain’s radiant love interest salving a hero’s wounds or Mia Wasikowska gasping appreciatively at the dress bought for her by Jack.
Such familiar scenes aside, Lawless remains a well-made and sublimely acted movie. Tom Hardy once again proves that he’s a true screen presence, and more major roles are sure to follow his turn here.
That it’s so markedly different from anything else out this autumn (particularly now Gangster Squad has been shunted back) will, we hope, coax audiences to come out and see it, especially with the lure of its exemplary cast – especially Hardy, fresh from his stark turn in The Dark Knight Rises.
If there’s any justice, people will go to see Lawless.
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