LAWLESS Review

There is a line in the film where Tom Hardy's Forrest Bondurant tells his youngest brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf) that they are survivors and that they control the fear and without the fear they are all as good as dead. It is a powerful statement and one that keeps a looming feeling of dread over the entire film. There is something eerily familiar about all the going on's in Lawless but there is a distinctive feeling it is also cutting edge stuff. Walking into the film I expected something a bit more out of the norm than maybe the final film delivered but that is not to say I was not intrigued by the tale of the Bondurant boys and their moonshining business. It is, in itself, a very serious film that has been based on true events documented by Jack Bondurant's grandson Matt in a 2008 novel titled The Wettest County in the World. While the era the film takes place in, prime prohibition 1931, is ripe for all kinds of interesting and exciting storytelling; like its characters Lawless skirts the outside of that world. They do not touch the city where the big name gangsters of the day do their business and create their legends. They instead keep to themselves in small Franklin, Virginia where their name means authority and as Forrest implies they intend to keep it that way, not allowing for folks to see what they truly are. For me, this is where Lawless struck a chord and broke away from the conventional storytelling that otherwise brings the film down a few notches. It is a story of mortality and how, no matter the cause, it will forever effect one's satisfaction with life if they decide to not face that mortality and accept the outcome it has to offer.

Jack Bondurant (Shia Labeouf) tries to impress the
preachers daughter Bertha (Mia Wasikowska).
What at first sucks you into the film though is not these characters who only abide by their own law, but it is instead that setting and the authentic way in which director John Hillcoat's team have evoked the period in which their story takes place. Everything about the documentation of the time period feels nothing short of exactly how it was in that day and age. In ways it is amazing to see how far we have come from the most backwoods of environments but in many ways if you go visit the rural areas of the southern states you can still feel the mentality of that time creeping in through the broken boards and tall trees. It is that type of recognition that lets you know they are doing something right in a film. I love the time period anyway and think anything given such care to depict it honestly deserves my attention thus the reasons I was so anxious to see the film besides its impressive roster of talent. Lawless begins with a scene of the brothers much younger than when we eventually catch up to them but it conveys the dynamic between them so that we may understand the way they will eventually work and how their rank informs their role. Howard (Jason Clarke) is the oldest, he is the enforcer but he is also the one who consumes more than his fair share of the brothers product . While Forrest is plenty able to handle himself in a fight he is also the clear cut leader and manager of the businesses that not only include making and shipping the moonshine but also the small diner and gas station that houses the siblings. On the lower end is Jack who is naturalistic in his runt of the litter status. Jack aspires to be like his brothers, he wants to have as important a hand in their business, he just doesn't seem to have acquired as much of a taste for the brutal.

Jack sets out to take revenge on the new deputy in town
after he strikes out against he and his brothers.
As the brothers are followed around town by folklore and regarded as immortal they are for the most part left alone by the law to do business as they please and everyone seems to have made peace with that. It is in the midst of our nations most notorious crime wave that special deputy Charley Rakes (an almost unrecognizable Guy Pearce) is sent in from the big city of Chicago to cut the Bondurant's and others with similar ways of making a livings profits. Leave it to Forrest to not accept the deal and strike an ongoing fued with the deputy. This mixed with young brother Jack's desire to feel more a part of his brothers gang can only lead to more trouble than any case of moonshine is worth. Throw in a couple of women as love interests for Forrest and Jack and you have yourself a whole melting pot of standard melodrama that you understand the consequences they will face and how it will likely all play out. While it is understood that the plot points Lawless hits are nothing if not typical, as I said earlier it is not necessarily this that mattered to me. What caught me off guard, what took me into the film was that theme of believing in their own legend and the task connected to living up to it. Director Hillcoat who is likely best known for his 2006 film The Proposition (which I haven't seen but I did like his 2009 Cormac McCarthy adaptation of The Road) sets a tone here that carries over the film a sense of purpose that is sometimes needed when the film begins to drag. There is this overlying sense of that fear Forrest talks about that is not only in the townspeople the Bondurant's defy but in themselves. The film allows us to see through what created the brothers persona in the first place. We see them unsure of what to do, we see them fight amongst each other and we see them knocked down, countless times only to regain their footing and do their best to restore the faith in those expectations their reputation has set for them.

The silent, brooding Forrest (Tom Hardy) is able to show
a little more emotion when Maggie (Jessica Chastain) shows up.
For the most part, this inside look into the truth of folklore is due to the caliber of the performances the film has going for it. Not only do both Shia Labeouf and Tom Hardy give commanding turns even if Shia never really feels like he fits in neither with his brothers or the time period (or that accent). Still, he has to be given some kind of appreciation for trying his best to develop a range and become more than a studio wonderboy who bounces from franchise to franchise. He may be miscast as the youngest Bondurant but by the films conclusion we have accepted him in this world and he has our attention. Hardy, for the most part is a brooding, silent beast that only says what needs to be said and leaves the rest up to everyone else to fill out. What matters though in both the character and the performance is the presence that Hardy makes you feel. Forrest does the least amount of anything in the script but he also leaves the biggest impression, he is the one you want to see the camera land on. Gary Oldman also shows up in a few scenes as successful gangster Floyd Banner who serves as a summary for how the outside world operates and allows an important plot point to be realized but little more. He is more or less a cameo in the film than a supporting player. The same could almost be said for Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska who are limited to underdeveloped roles as love interests to Forrest and Jack. The flashiest role in the whole piece goes to Guy Pearce though, a character so over the top he is almost a caricature the time period. Pearce is a more than capable actor though and knows what he's doing and how to play up certain parts and when to bring it down to ground level. The same can be said for the film overall as for the most part it is nothing more than a great looking historical drama, but when it gets brutally down and dirty it sets itself apart and confronts what it really is. If only it did this more consistently it might have lived up to the expectations I had for it the same way the brothers lived up to theirs.