A robust gangster drama with a kick like the white lightning that fuels its plot, Lawless manages to find a new take on old material, thanks largely to an ideal cast and strong source material.
Director John Hillcoat (The Road) reunites with fellow Aussie and bad-boy musician, author, and occasional screenwriter Nick Cave to adapt Matt Bondurant’s novel The Wettest County in the World, itself a fictionalized retelling of a colorful chapter of family history. Chock full of blood, outlawry, and moral ambiguity, it’s the ideal terrain for the two, who took international cinema by surprise with the prison drama Ghosts… of the Civil Dead in 1988 and then re-teamed for the Australian pseudo-western The Proposition in 2005. Lawless is populated by the kinds of characters Cave sang about in his days with the Bad Seeds; thugs with hair triggers and wounded women, all operating with a warped code of honor under a cloud of impending reckoning.
Shia LaBeouf delivers some of his better recent work — which, admittedly, isn’t saying much — as Jack Bondurant, the youngest of a trio of bootlegging brothers who supply the inhabitants of Franklin County, Virginia, with illegal liquor during Prohibition. Jack is at the center of the film, but it’s the colorful characters around him who hold our attention: stern, no-nonsense elder brother Forrest (Tom Hardy), who took over as family patriarch at a young age when the Spanish flu killed their parents; middle brother Howard (Jason Clarke), the enforcer for the family business; and Jack’s crippled friend Cricket (Dane DeHaan), who makes their superior product. Stalking them like a dandified predator is Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), an oily, corrupt, and possibly disturbed lawman whose desire to take down the Bondurants borders on obsession.
The prerequisite romantic subplots come via Mia Wasikowska as Bertha, the rebellious Amish preacher’s daughter courted by Jack; and Jessica Chastain as Maggie, a soiled dove from Chicago who has fled to the country to find some peace, but instead winds up in a world more brutal and unforgiving than the one she left. Additionally, a superb Gary Oldman makes a couple of brief appearances as big-time Chicago gangster, and leaves such a memorable impression that it’s a shame he wasn’t featured more.
Hillcoat and Cave dabble in classic gangster tropes but stop short of anything mythic. Much like the source material by Jack’s grandson, they are thoroughly on the side of the Bondurants’ bad behavior, and though they never excuse it they definitely stack the deck in their favor. The brothers and their cohorts are presented honest folk making a dishonest living thanks to an ill-conceived 18th Amendment (think hillbilly Robin Hoods).
These are not subtle characters, but the cracker jack cast brings them to vivid life, especially Hardy, a Method actor’s Method actor, poised to inherit the mantle of Marlon Brando. As Forrest, he’s a quietly menacing bull of a man with throaty growl for a voice and barely restrained brutality. His performance is another in a recent string of memorable turns that include Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Inception, and the recent The Dark Knight Rises. It strikes an interesting contrast to Pearce’s preening, almost cartoonish sadism as Rakes, dealing out an oddly effective dose of camp that is slick and terrifying. When the latter’s unflappable authority clashes with Forrest’s unyielding pride it’s the proverbial meeting of irresistible force and immoveable object.