Throughout most of Lawless, a gangster film loosely based on real events, there’s a feeling that you may have seen this somewhere before. That sense of familiarity doesn’t necessarily spoil things – for the most part, the film is unexpectedly engaging entertainment – it’s just that it doesn’t offer up any new insight of the time or reflect upon anything you didn’t already know.
The novel upon which Lawless is based was written by Matt Bondurant and he tells the story of his grandfather and two great-uncles who ran a moonshine operation during the Prohibition era in Franklin County,Virginia.
Young Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf) and his two older brothers find themselves under pressure with their bootlegging business when they refuse to pay the bribes required to keep the feds off their backs. “We don’t lay down for nobody,” insists oldest brother, Forrest. Tension develops further when special agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) arrives in the county direct from Chicago and causes further trouble for the Bondurant brothers.
Part of the film’s problem is realizing that the majority of events are going to surround the Shia LeBeouf character – presumably because that’s how Matt Bondurant’s novel is written – yet it’s really the oldest brother, Forrest (Tom Hardy) who creates the most interest. Hardy’s dialog is minimal, plus the film only calls on his character when the plot needs him, yet when he’s there he’s center stage and it’s Forrest we connect with the most. He’s dangerous but his actions are directed only at those who threaten him or his family. He’s the guy you want on your side. Hardy, last seen as the villainous Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, is a compelling presence, and in Forrest he has found his most interesting on-screen character to date. “It’s not the violence that separates men,” he states to his younger brother, “It’s the distance they intend to go.”
Guy Pearce as the Chicago agent with the well-groomed, dandy appearance and a severe parting of his greased-back hair makes a solid impression. His glove-wearing character may represent the law but his tactics are every bit as violent as the men he’s trying to arrest, plus he appears to enjoy his own brand of brutality considerably more than any real lawman should.
Benoît Delhomme’s widescreen photography has the look of authenticity with it’s well-framed shots and brown tinted colors. There’s a sense of period to many of the scenes that help create the feeling that we’re really watching events through a window opening up onto the real thing. The film shies away from making any kind of comment on the desperation of the times – the focus is squarely on the three brothers – but just occasionally we catch a glimpse of life’s difficulties for many of these mountain people. The depression caused many to be homeless and at one point we catch a glimpse of this reflected in the one shot where a parade of homeless families stand at the side of the road while a nearby billboard paints the picture of an idyllic, happy life proclaiming ‘There’s No Way Like The American Way.’
Lawless is more a drama than an adventure. The pacing slows just at the time when you want it to kick in to a higher gear and Shia LeBeouf’s Jack is simply not as interesting as his older brother, yet despite these hiccups the overall feeling with which you leave the theatre is one of satisfaction. How much of this story is real and how much is embellished myth and legend is difficult to say, but there’s a lot of crowd-pleasing pleasure to be had watching Forrest exact revenge, and who doesn’t enjoy a good shoot ‘em up climax where those who deserve retribution get it?
MPAA Rating: R Length: 115 minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)
For fans of movie trivia, or for those who fall for the illusion that a film creates, consider the following: Despite looking and sounding as though everyone was born and raised in the backwoods of Virginia almost all are from overseas. Tom Hardy who plays the seemingly indestructible oldest brother, Forrest, is from England, as is Gary Oldman as gangster, Floyd Banner. Jason Clarke as the third brother, Mia Wasikowska as the Mennonite preacher’s daughter, and Guy Pearce as the vindictive special agent are all from Australia. Out of all the principle characters, only two are American, Shia LeBeouf and Jessica Chastain.