Review of Lawless

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A Western crime drama starring Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy & Jason Clarke as three brothers who find their bootlegging business under threat in Prohibition-era Franklin County, Virginia. Based on the novel "The Wettest County in the World" by Matt Bondurant.
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Movie Review: "Lawless"

-- Rating: R
Length: 116 minutes
Release Date: August 29, 2012
Directed by: John Hillcoat
Genre: Crime/Drama

Lawless, from director John Hillcoat, is the first great mob movie to come out in a long while, and the first great moonshine movie to come out in a very long while. There are mob hits, shoot outs, police raids, beautiful dames, tommy guns aplenty; just about everything you'd expect to find in a mob movie. There's also great writing, wonderful production design, and solid performances by a fantastic cast; just about everything you hope for in a great film. Along with an on-the-button score by Nick Cave (who also penned the script), all these factors elevate the film's conventional individual parts to create an extremely worthwhile whole.

Instead of the more well traveled streets of Chicago or New York, this mob movie tour de force unfolds in the hills of Virginia under the orange glow of countless countryside stills. The story, inspired by true events, focuses on the Bondurants, a family of three hardscrabble brothers who run a moonshine business as a matter of survival. The script is based on the historical novel The Wettest County in the World by Bondurant descendent Matt Bondurant.

Tom Hardy fills the role of Forrest Bondurant, the taciturn eldest brother filling the shoes of the trio's dead parents. Middle brother Howard is a black sheep / mad dog type of character played by
Movie Review: "Lawless"

Australian TV mainstay Jason Clarke. And finally, there's the star of the show, Shia LaBeouf, who takes a break from messing with my childhood to play the baby faced youngest brother Jack.

The Bondurants operate in the open, selling to everyone, up to and including the sheriff's department. There's some violence here and there in this naturally rough part of the country, but all in all, everyone get on just fine. That changes when the sadistic federal agent Charley Rakes, played by a very dapper Guy Pierce, comes to town. Part of the Chicago machine, Rakes doesn't seek to end the bootlegging in Virginia, but rather to control and exploit it.

The main cast is rounded out by Jessica Chastain (The Help, Tree of Life), who plays Maggie Beauford, a Chicago girl trying but failing to escape the violence of the city, and Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland, The Kids Are Alright), playing Bertha Minnix, a minister’s daughter and love interest to LaBeouf.

You may scoff at the idea of Shia “Witwicky” LaBeouf as the leading man in a mob film (I know I did), but here he is well suited to the role and pulls it of with aplomb. Jack Bondurant is softhearted, a bit of a goofball, and more than a little naive. If it weren't for prohibition, he would probably be working behind the counter at the general store, happy to tell you where to find the Metamucil. Instead, he's wrapped up in his brothers' bootlegging business and idolizes the gangsters from the city he reads about in the paper (such as a tommy gun wielding Gary Oldman). He is a young man who is by nature gentle and meek trying to stake his place in an increasingly violent world not of his creation. LeBeouf pulls of each part of Jack's journey beautifully, appearing exactly as terrified, angry, exuberant, or full of himself as each scene dictates.

Tom Hardy also comes through with his portrayal of Forrest, giving the character an endearing mix of steal and slightly puzzled sensitivity. (He should also be applauded for pulling off the hat trick of looking eminently bad-ass while wearing a cardigan.) Forrest is stern with Jack and more than a little perplexed at Maggie's affection, all while trying to keep his family and community together with both arms against villainous outsiders.

Speaking of villainous outsiders, special mention should be given to Guy Pierce, who absolutely kills with his portrayal of brutal federal agent Charley Rakes. The character is rather one dimensional, but Pierce's performance of that one dimension is so well honed that you hardly care. The theaters gets several degrees colder every time he's on screen.

If the film has one major problem, it's that there's an awful lot going on in the screenplay, and even with a two hour run time, a some worthy things are crowded into the margins. This is most evident in regards to Maggie and Bertha, the only two women in a large cast of characters.

Regarding Bertha, the story of Jack the wanna-be gangster courting a minister's daughter from a particularly devout sect, while somewhat cliche, could have gone some interesting places. In fact, the film seems to be heading that direction, when at one point Jack drunkenly wanders into church services looking for Bertha, presumably hoping to do some sweet talking. Instead, he is wholly overwhelmed by the shear intensity of the services and flees back out the door he came in through. This was an extremely well played and strongly presented scene that pointed to a rich dynamic between Jack and Bertha, potentially touching on everything from Bertha's rebellion to Jack instinctively reaching for his own salvation. Instead, the scene is forgotten almost as soon as it happens, any resulting story ideas are dropped, and Bertha reverts to being a simple love interest. Wasikowska ably fills the role, but there was potential for more.

Likewise, Maggie is in many way the strongest character in the film, but you'd hardly know it for how fleeting her screen time is. Chastain has more to do in the role than Wasikowska does in hers, but the character still winds up underserved and underutilized.

Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with a supporting character being a supporting character. This isn't the film that focuses on the life and times of women during prohibition. That film is still waiting to be made. (Well, there's Big Bad Mama, the cringe inducing 1974 mob movie spoof, but that doesn't really count.) Still, this very male-centric movie is yet another occasion to malign the fact that in this industry, the main characters are often men and the supporting characters women, but the reverse is almost never true.

Overall, the film could stand to be more tightly focused and probably shorter. Or, if it was going to be this large in scope, it should have been longer, to let some of these characters and story threads breath.

Regardless, Lawless is the best movie about prohibition to come down the pipe in a long time. It's well worth your time, even if it does leave some stones waiting to be unturned.