If you see director John Hillcoat’s Lawless, you’ll learn that brass knuckles make a gory, unappealing mess of a man’s face. You’ll learn that a man can have hot tar poured over every inch of his bare flesh and still survive. You’ll learn that hasty decisions can have lethal consequences, and that death can be a grim, looming weight on a person’s conscience. Rape, violence and guilt are subjects touched on in Hillcoat’s first full-length feature since The Road (2009). Hillcoat doesn’t just flirt with these dark topics; he makes his actors get waist-deep in blood, sweat and snot, pulling viewers headlong into the filth as well.
Lawless, an adaptation of Matt Bondurant’s 2008 novel The Wettest County in the World, tells the story of three brothers who run a bootlegging business in Franklin County, Virginia. It’s Prohibition time in an economically struggling America, and the Bondurant brothers, who care entirely for themselves without the aid of parents, find that providing the locals with a little moonshine, in addition to running a restaurant, is a great way to make ends meet.
The Bondurant brothers are led by Forrest (Tom Hardy), the eldest of the trio. Forrest is a survivor of illness and war. As a result, he is a taciturn man who speaks more with his imposing build and clenched fists than with his mouth. Howard (Jason Clarke) is Forrest’s larger and more talkative brother with a constantly thirsty throat for alcohol. The youngest and most sheltered of the brothers, Jack (Shia LaBeouf), like all little brothers of cinema, is eager to participate in the more dangerous areas of the business rather than continuing with dull chores like chauffeuring and sweeping the restaurant’s floor.
The Bondurant’s are used to no interference from outside law. They bribe the local police force with jars of white lightning, sure, but the city’s law enforcement has never taken interest in the brewers of hill country; they’re too busy on the city streets dealing with characters like Al Capone.
But when Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) comes sniffing around the Bondurant home, that ideology about being safe from the law crumples like a dirt clod under the weight of a wagon wheel.
As it turns out, the Bondurant’s don’t like having strangers, even those with a badge pinned to their vest, sticking their nose in their territory. Rakes, though, is a tenacious, meticulous man, the type of person who won’t stop until he’s finished the job, even if that means doing extra-curricular activities that go beyond the yellow-tape regulations of the law. Remember that talk about hot tar on skin? Rakes oversees this depraved act and takes smug enjoyment in hearing the victim’s inhuman shrieks.
There are many outstanding performances in Lawless; it displays perhaps the best overall acting by a cast this year since Joe Carnahan’s The Grey. Shia LaBeouf turns in his best performance ever, showing he can do more than shriek “Bumblebee!” while running through hordes of CGI-laden battlegrounds. Jack is a flawed character that wants to help too much for his own good—and the good of those close to him, as his actions too often bring violence unto others. LaBeouf believably displays fear, cowardice, anger, guilt, and despair throughout the film.
Hardy steals scenes by doing a lot with a little. His grunts and facial expressions are a wonder to behold. He’s a man who seems to always be carefully searching for the solution to a tricky problem, but that doesn’t mean he won’t lash out with blood on his mind. Hardy continues his reign as character king, turning in a performance that’s miles different than The Dark Knight Rises’ Bane, but is still just as memorable.
Pearce provides a worthy opponent for the Bondurant’s. He knows how to hit them where it hurts, and he strikes with unnerving efficiency. Rakes is a disturbing villain. On the outside, he looks like a civilized, proper 1930s businessman: two-piece suit, greased-down parted hair, and leather gloves. But beneath the well-clad exterior, Rakes has a savage side that won’t bat an eye at snapping necks or breaking ribs.
Also in the supporting cast, Jessica Chastain, Dane DeHaan (who blew me away with his role in Josh Trank’s Chronicle), and Mia Wasikowska bolster the film’s raw energy with terrific turns.
No matter how much I rant and rave about the great performances, I can’t ignore the somewhat lazy storytelling. Nick Cave, who wrote the screenplay, injects the film with fantastic, gritty dialogue that sometimes makes you laugh and sometimes makes you gasp. The plot itself, however, is unmotivated and just plain dumb at times. Main shifts in the plot always happen because characters (especially LaBeouf’s Jack) continue to commit stupid acts. Jack does things behind his brothers’ backs so many times that I wondered if Forrest and Howard wouldn’t be better off just exiling their little bro. And although the first two-thirds of the film boast realistically sudden violence mixed in with fascinating conversations, the third act is strangely anti-climactic and left me feeling a little cheated.
Oh well. There are too many great actors honing their craft with sweeping style here to overlook this one.
4 stars out of 5 (B+)
Lawless is rated R, has a running time of 1 hour and 55 minutes, and was given a limited United States release on August 29, 2012.