Shia LaBeouf as Jack Bondurant
Jessica Chastain as Maggie
Tom Hardy as Forrest Bondurant
Guy Pearce as Special Agent Charlie Rakes
Mia Wasikowska as Bertha Minnix
Gary Oldman as Floyd Banner
Dane DeHaan as Cricket Pate
Jason Clarke as Howard Bondurant
Noah Taylor as Gummy Walsh
Bill Camp as Sheriff Hodges
Lew Temple as Abshire
Alex Van as Tizwell
William J. Harrison as Young Howard Bondurant
Bruce McKinnon as Jimmy Turner
Duncan Nicholson as Jack Bondurant Jr.
Chris McGarry as Danny
Eric Mendenhall as Spoons Rivard
Darryl Booker as Benny Bootlegger
Directed by John Hillcoat
In the mountains of Franklin County, Virginia, brothers Jack, Forrest and Howard Bomerand (Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke) have made their names by producing and smuggling moonshine during the times of Prohibition. The two older brothers have run the business for years but the younger Jack finds himself getting more involved with the business alongside his best friend, the mechanically-proficient Cricket (Dane DeHaan). The brothers’ relationship is put to the test when two new people arrive in town: the beautiful Maggie (Jessica Chastain), who Forrest hires as a waitress and the ruthless Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), who has declared war on the brothers.
Now that Reuben Fleischer’s “Gangster Squad” has been shifted to next year, there aren’t many other options in the popular but dormant gangster film genre. Along comes “Lawless,” a period piece that reunites moody rocker Nick Cave with director John Hillcoat from 2005’s Australian Western “The Proposition” as they adapt Matt Bondurant’s novel “The Wettest County in the World” about his family of bootleggers who ruled the Appalachian mountains during Prohibition.
Those going into “Lawless” expecting a gangster movie may be somewhat disappointed that it’s really more of a family drama than an action movie and at first, it feels like the two Australian filmmakers are somewhat out of their depth in the Appalachian environment during the Prohibition until they find their feet. Because of this, the results aren’t quite on par with “Bonnie and Clyde” nor even “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” even though both are suitable entry points. Fans of “Breaking Bad” should be able to appreciate the tension and drama inherent with the brothers’ attempt to keep their business rolling despite the presence of Guy Pearce’s oily Special Agent Charlie Rakes, whose only desire is to take the Bondurant family down.
The terrific cast Hillcoat has assembled is what really makes “Lawless” work though Shia LaBeouf, while perfectly fine, clearly comes off like the weakest link amidst such an incredibly strong dramatic cast. That’s not to say he’s bad but he’s certainly the least credible among the brothers as offering any sort of menace, and the subplot involving his romance with the daughter of an Amish preacher does very little to move the overall story along. On the other hand, the sexual tension between Tom Hardy’s Forest and Jessica Chastain’s Maggie allows for a number of juicier moments that ably counter the brutal violence surrounding the former. Forest is actually another strong turn for Hardy, although he spends much of the film grunting and speaking almost unintelligibly.
Regardless, the movie’s clear standout is Guy Pearce’s oily deputy Charlie Rakes, a dapperly-dressed dandy seemingly wearing make-up whose despicable way of getting results goes as far as tar and feathering those who have information and murder. By the midway point, it’s become obvious that he’ll do anything to get results.
While the conflict between the Bondurants and Rakes is the film’s driving force, there are other ideas and subplots introduced that aren’t as fully evolved or resolved. That’s particularly the case with the one actual gangster element introduced in the form of Gary Oldman’s Floyd Banner, who shows up in town to shoot up a guy then vanishes until an hour later and then is gone again, never fully justifying the inclusion of the character except that it’s the only real gangster element.
For the most part, “Lawless” has some memorably violence moments that could appease any Cronenberg fan, but it also has serious pacing problems and it’s a bit too erratic as it tries to fit too many puzzle pieces together. After one climactic final shoot em up, it leads to a number of seemingly endless epilogues where the story jumps ahead a number of years to see what happened to the Bondurants after their conflict with the law. There were plenty of better places to end this movie.
The pairing of Hillcoat and Cave still offers lots of pleasant surprises, most notably Cave’s soundtrack co-written with musical collaborator Warren Ellis, providing tunes that sound like they come straight from that era performed by their band, conveniently called the Bootleggers. Cave only takes vocal duties on one tune and allows the likes of Emmylou Harris and Mark Lanegan to do the rest, but even more incredible is a clever cover of Lou Reed’s “White Light/White Heat” done in a similar style by Ralph Stanley.
The Bottom Line:
“Lawless” may not be as strong a film by John Hillcoat as either his adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” or his previous collaborations with Cave, but for anyone wanting to learn more about a period in America’s history that hasn’t been overexposed in cinema, “Lawless” is a perfectly viable (and violent) look at moonshiners during Prohibition with a kick-ass soundtrack.