It may or may not be true that crime doesn’t pay, but in the movies it’s at least interesting. Lawless tells a good enough story, with good enough performances, to help you overlook its occasional flaws.
The film is based on the true story of the Bondurant brothers, Prohibition-era moonshiners in Franklin County, Virginia. The two eldest Bondurants are tough nuts – Forrest (Tom Hardy) speaks softly and carries a hefty set of brass knuckles, and war-veteran Howard (Jason Clarke) is a maniac when he’s sipped a little too much of their product. Both are protective of their little brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf), but they ride him for being weak and not personifying the local legend that the Bondurants are unkillable. Jack drives his siblings on their errands, and tends shop with Cricket (Dane DeHaan), the crippled young mechanic who maintains the stills.
Due to its proliferation of bootleggers, Franklin is called “the wettest County in America”, and one day some federal lawmen show up to get in on the action. Forrest refuses them, setting Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a psychotic Chicago dandy, on their tails. Events soon give Jack an opportunity to take a bigger role in the family business, but his newfound recklessness and habit of showing off for the preacher’s daughter (Mia Wasikowska) might just make things worse.
In many ways, Lawless plays like a classic mob movie, though I would hesitate to compare it to The Godfather. But there’s a heavy emphasis on family, and Jack’s story follows a common pattern, tracing the young crook’s journey from ambitious outsider to flashy, overconfident hood, learning his lessons the hard way. And certainly these Virginians are capable of violence just as brutal as the Mafia – this isn’t a film for the faint of heart. If you’re a fan of the genre, you’ll find plenty to like here in the script by musician Nick Cave.
Cave also contributes much to the soundtrack – maybe a little too much. Similar to the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the music here is either based on or meant to sound like the folk songs of the era, but it’s overproduced and often jars with the visuals, wearing out its welcome by the end. Director John Hillcoat struggles with that balance, and with some overall pacing issues.
The leads also struggle. LaBeouf seems to be channeling his characters from previous movies through a wonky Virginia accent. And Hardy tries to play Forrest as the strong silent type, but ends up as more brick wall than man. He’s likeable enough, but his stiffness brings unintended giggles out of the audience. Neither performance defeats the film, though, and luckily they’re supported by an excellent cast, including Jessica Chastain as the mysterious city girl who comes to work for the Bondurants, brief appearances by Gary Oldman as mobster Floyd Banner, and several actors playing the poor cops trapped between the bootleggers and Charlie Rakes. As Rakes, Pearce is by far the best of the lot, but the psycho antagonist in these movies usually is.
Lawless isn’t a perfect film, but it’s good enough to get the job done. Just like a shot of moonshine.
Tags: movie review