In Prohibition era America, the Bondurant brothers were the main moonshiners in Virginia. When Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) – a ruthless law enforcement official – rolls into town, he threatens their privileged position and their livelihoods.
Lawless tells it’s tale from the side of the moonshiners operating outside the law, and combines the Western and the Gangster movie to stunning effect. The story focuses on the three brothers; Jack (Shia LaBeouf), Howard and Forrest. Jack is our protagonist and the youngest of the band of brothers. La Beouf plays a similar character to the one he plays in the transformers franchise; Jack is a vulnerable young man straddling his teenage years and manhood; he is not yet as hardened as his brothers, no matter how much he would like to be. Jack is a whirlwind of ambition and vanity; once he begins to be successful, he wastes no time in showing the trappings of his newfound wealth and unintentionally baits Rakes. LaBoeuf brings a vulnerability to the role that the character needed in order for him to grow through the film and for the audience to root for this band of anti-heroes.
Tom Hardy as Forrest is the stoic centre of the film, he is the opposite of everything that Jack is. He speaks very little, he is stoic and calm and watches everything that goes on around him, like a coiled snake, waiting for his moment to strike. Tom Hardy is perhaps the only actor working today that can be still and silent on screen, yet utterly mesmerising. Forrest may not say much, but it is through his silence that he conveys everything that he is thinking. This is a performance from Hardy that cements his position as one of the great actors working today. Forrest wears his cruelty on his sleeve, but there is a gentleness to the character that is mainly apparent when dealing with Maggie (Jessica Chastain) and it is obvious that his apparent cruelty toward his youngest brother is motivated from a place of love.
Jason Clarke plays the middle brother Howard. He is the balance between the brothers; whatever these people need him to be, he is; from gollem in a cave to mediator to watchman. Clarke inhabits the character well and takes his cue from the action that is going on around him. Jessica Chastain – AKA the woman who has not had a day off in years – plays Maggie, the love interest for Forrest. The two balance one another out; she is the woman, yet he is the one who is reluctant and hesitant to get involved with her. Where she is masculine, he is feminine yet they switch through the running time of the film.
Guy Pearce plays a wonderfully malicious and unfeeling villain in Charlie Rakes. Here is a man who is utterly without scruple or regret, motivated by his own view of the world and his vanity, both for his looks and his success in his work. Yet, there is a corruption within the character and a ruthlessness that belies the conflict within the character. Like Michael Shannon’s great portrayal of Agent Van Alden in Boardwalk Empire, Rakes is a deeply flawed character without humanity or empathy.
Nick Cave has created a wonderful script – based on Matt Bondurant’s book The Wettest County in the World – and captured feel of the time. Cave blends sentimentality and the love stories with extreme violence and manages to balance them incredibly well. As well as this, Cave has created a wonderful soundtrack for the film that may be anachronistic, but works.
Director John Hillcoat proved with The Proposition that he is able to create a rambling western that keeps the audience on the edge of their seat, but with Lawless he has dialled back the tension and the violence. Yes, the violence is there and it is still incredibly brutal, fast and messy, but as Forrest reminds us, this is not violence for the sake of violence – except perhaps Rakes’s initial attack on Jack – the violence is warranted, and Forrest prefers a short sharp strike to a lengthy brawl. Violence solves the issue, it is not necessarily the issue itself. Lawless is not slick, as we have come to expect from gangster films; it is as messy and dirty as the temporal setting and the occupation that these men have chosen.
There is a resurgence of audience fascination with the prohibition era of America. Michael Mann’s slight misstep with Public Enemies may have spelled the death knell for the style, but along came the wonderful TV show Boardwalk Empire that revived the genre.
In all, Lawless is a fantastic follow up to John Hillcoat and Nick Cave’s previous collaboration, The Proposition. The film is a story of love, family and survival that is utterly enthralling and action packed. The performances are mesmerising – even if some of the accents are borderline unintelligible – and at the end of the day, Lawless is a heck of a lot of violent, bloodsoaked fun.