LAWLESS – The Review
It’s well known that Prohibition was an epic failure in terms of deterring the consumption of alcohol, but it did succeed at making the 1920s and early 1930s a very exciting period of American history. Not since the Wild West era of the mid-1800s has America seen such lawlessness, hence the title of director John Hillcoat‘s new film LAWLESS. The story of the Bondurant brothers takes place during Prohibition in Franklin County, Virginia. Notoriously known as the “wettest county,” this rural mountain region is a central hub of illegal bootlegging. Everyone seems to be making moonshine, but no one seems to do it as well, or with as much disregard for the authorities and outside influences as the legendary Bondurant brothers.
John Hillcoat has established a reputation for atmospheric, impressive dramatic films that fall short of receiving the exposure nor the appreciation they truly deserve. Hillcoat’s previous offerings include THE PROPOSITION (2005) and THE ROAD (2009), both of which received some critical praise, but too few of the general movie-going public can lay claim knowing these films. Working from a rich and occasionally humorous screenplay co-written by the multi-talented Nick Cave and family descendant Mark Bondurant, LAWLESS is a pleasantly enjoyable mixture of historical drama, gangster lore, love story, and a healthy dose of action and comedy, but never in excess.
Tom Hardy (WARRIOR, BRONSON) continues his run of impressive performances as Forrest Bondurant, the eldest of the brothers and the one with his head on straight. Forrest is a man of few words, but when you can say as much or more with a simple stare and back it up with a furious fist of steel when necessary, there’s a reason Forrest is feared as much as he is respected by other bootleggers in Franklyn County. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the family name carries with it a “legendary” status for being “immortal.” Hardy captures the quiet, calm and calculating nature of the eldest brother, complete with his simple trademark vocalization… “hmmph.”
Shia LeBeouf (EAGLE EYE, DISTURBIA) adds to his post-TRANSFORMERS resume, playing Jack Bondurant, the youngest of the brothers and the one with the most ambition. The problem is that Jack’s ambition is ruled by youthful recklessness and short-sighted materialism. Despite his good intentions, Jack naivety serves to get his family into hot water, a sticky situation his older, more courageous — or, perhaps more crazy — brothers ultimately must resolve in their own, unique ways. LaBeouf may not be the world’s greatest actor, but his talents serve a purpose. In this case, his range fits nicely into the mold and works well with his more seasoned co-stars.
Jason Clarke (PUBLIC ENEMIES) is easily the lesser known of the actors playing the Bondurant brothers, his contribution being that of Howard, the mostly drunken, questionably crazy mad dog factor of the family.Howard has the smallest role of the three brothers in LAWLESS, but his presence when made, is made loud and clear. Clarke has been an actor I watch for, rarely making major starring appearances in film, but also has an established — yet, unfortunate — streak of bad luck with television (THE CHICAGO CODE, BROTHERHOOD) whereas his series rarely enjoy a long life expectancy.
These three actors combined, however, cannot match the gravitas of Guy Pearce (LOCKOUT) in this film, playing the germ-a-phobic sociopath Charlie Rakes. Being a “special deputy” and enforcer for the corrupt new government authority in town, Rakes blurs the line between good guy and bad guy, creating a turbulent tornado of tension as the big city outsider in this rural alien world of Franklin County. Pearce gives LAWLESS the counter-intuitive menace it needs to present the Bondurant brothers in the proper light. Pearce inhabits the creepy, frightening well-mannered loose cannon so well as to become unrecognizable at first. There’s something to be said about a man without eyebrows, but that only scratches the surface of the terrifying persona Pearce portrays, while still allowing the character to take part in the subtle, smart wit written into the film’s dialogue.
LAWLESS features a beautifully imagined landscape and atmosphere, courtesy of cinematography from Benoit Delhomme (1408, THE PROPOSITION). The film has a brilliantly soft, but saturated sunlit appeal. LAWLESS feels warm, despite the risk and danger at hand; happy, despite the danger and fear present just around each corner of the wooded landscape, often summoning fairytale-like glimpses of the trees and what lies just beyond, just out of sight. Combine this with a respectfully selected, upbeat choice of period musical accompaniments, LAWLESS succeeds in transporting the audience to the correct time and place, but still somehow hints at something slightly fantastical by way of expertly interpreted sunlight.
I must mention the remaining cast that make LAWLESS such a pleasing movie. Jessica Chastain (TAKE SHELTER, THE HELP) is a mind-blowing specimen of feminine beauty — as always — but certainly delivers once more on a dramatic level as the love interest and driving force for Forrest. Mia Wasikowski (JANE EYRE) has a relatively small role, but has a notable presence none-the-less as the religiously unattainable love interest of Jack Bondurant. Finally, with yet another relatively small role, Gary Oldman (THE DARK KNIGHT, THE BOOK OF ELI) takes what little screen time he has and produces his own magnificent version of a 1930s era gangster, in this case as “Mad Dog” Floyd Banner, a Tommy gun wielding intelligent man of action who throws caution to the wind and has not a hesitant bone in his body.
LAWLESS runs just shy of two hours with a 115-minute length. The pacing is consistent, but to some may feel slightly slowed in the middle. Stick with it, it passes and picks up significantly in the third act. The film could be described as a rural PUBLIC ENEMIES with a very subtle pinch of O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? thrown in by way of the colorful characters.