"Lawless" Thrives On Atmosphere, Intense Performances

“Lawless,” a dusty, ferocious prohibition-era gangster/western hybrid, is Shia LaBeouf’s film through and through. Its success hinges on his ability to sell the audience as a loyal but naive moonshiner circa 1930, rather than the smarmy, undeserving action star of such critical duds as “Transformers” and “Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull.” Fortunately, LaBeouf fans will delight in his best performance to date, and his detractors will be thrilled by a sequence in which his character is beat to a pulp by a seethingly corrupt lawman. Everybody wins!

John Hillcoat directs an adapted screenplay by musician Nick Cave, based on the book “The Wettest County In The World” by Matt Bondurant. Bondurant based the book on his real-life grandfather and granduncles – Jack (LaBeouf), Forrest (Tom Hardy), and Howard (Jason Clarke) Bondurant. At the beginning of the picture, the three brothers are the most renowned moonshiners in Virginia, but as prohibition continues to weigh on the national consciousness, gangsters and crooked cops start to look for their piece of the pie. The Bondurants are local legends, but aren’t as revered by out-of-town creeps like Guy Pearce’s sneering Deputy Charlie Rakes.

Jack is the youngest Bondurant, physically unimposing but quietly charismatic – a charisma fixed on the daughter of a local preacher, Bertha (Mia Wasikowska). LaBeouf gives his character significant vulnerability and the necessary naivety, and his accent is surprisingly palatable. Jack is distracted by the desires of younger men, but his respect and loyalty towards his eldest brother, Forrest, is palpable – there’s an intense but unspoken bond between the Bondurants. Forrest is everything Jack isn’t – brooding, explosively violent, but socially awkward (as signified by his relationship with his newest hire, Maggie, played by the gorgeous Jessica Chastain).

Jack enjoys time spent driving with his crippled friend and co-worker, Cricket (Dane DeHaan), while Forrest gets off on brass-knuckled brawls, often in defense of family members. Hardy snarls his way through the film, often punctuating dialogue (or lack thereof) with frog-like guttural noises. It’s over-the-top, but as another character points out, Forrest “believes in his own legend.” The sheen of invincibility that follows the Bondurants adds a fascinating layer to the film, and when they eventually come to blows with Deputy Rakes, the scale seems larger than it is. By the third act, the stakes seem nearly mythical.

An eyebrow-less Guy Pearce gives a tremendous performance as the aforementioned Deputy Rakes, and he slithers about the screen in a manner that’s more evocative of classic horror villains than gangster film stereotypes. Unfortunately, Gary Oldman’s role is little more than a cameo (less than five minutes of screen time), but his scenes as a classical gangster idolized by Jack and Cricket crackle with the amount of electricity we expect from him. It’s a shame that the character serves such little purpose within the narrative.

The first hour of “Lawless” is an admittedly slow burn. Hillcoat and company spend much of the first act revving the engine of a story that doesn’t seem to have anywhere to go. Additionally, the collision between urban gangsters and rural moonshiners is unsteady and the connection is unsure. We’re never given any explanation as to the correlation between Chicago thugs and Virginia hillbillies, and spatially, some of the characters’ travels don’t make sense. Yet, the cinematography is lush and the era is captured so well that most audiences won’t mind some of the storytelling shortcuts.

Ultimately, “Lawless” is a simple-minded tale of family bonds, loyalty, and revenge, and while it doesn’t have much to say about prohibition itself, it uses it as an effective backdrop to tell a gripping story about a much different time in American history. It doesn’t aspire to great things, but that’s its biggest strength. It hits its mark over and over again, and its shortcomings are muted by strongly realized characters (Jessica Chastain’s is the only weak one here) and brutal but beautifully filmed flashes of heroism and villainy – often carried out by the same player. “Lawless” is exactly what it’s supposed to be – a stylish, streamlined, and thrilling prohibition era action yarn.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: August 29, 2012
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Director: John Hillcoat
Screenwriter: Nick Cave
Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Guy Pearce, Gary Oldman, Mia Wasikowska, Dane DeHaan
MPAA Rating: R (for strong bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity)