Seriously, prohibition did no one any favors. “Lawless” is a Western-inspired take on the gangster pic, in which the only rules are that there are no rules and the men with the power are the men who wield the most fear — and guns.
Combined with his previous films “The Proposition” and “The Road,” Australian director John Hillcoat has become the foremost director of contemporary Westerns, even if only “The Proposition” can technically be considered as such. Running through each of his films thematically is the notion of man doing what he must, namely putting the bonds of family ahead of all else.
The Bondurant brothers, Howard (Jason Clarke), Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Jack (Shia LaBeouf), run a successful moonshine operation in Franklin, Va. during Prohibition, but when some feds, namely deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), move in from Chicago, they shake things up in attempt to put a stranglehold on “The Wettest County in the World.” Rakes’ lack of hesitancy when it comes to using violence to assert his will pushes the brothers to the edge, and the film builds toward an inevitable standoff.
“Lawless” serves mostly as an exercise in the escalation of violent tactics in a place without law and order. Other than being slimy, obsessive-compulsive and all manners of dislikable, Pearce’s Rakes doesn’t appear to have much reason behind his methods other than he thinks he can get away with it. The Bondurants’ refusal to give in to anyone else taking a cut of the profits is all it takes for things to get ugly — and fast.
The film has an eye-opening physicality emphasized by Hillcoat’s skill at depicting brute force and bare-knuckle violence. The way Rakes among others behaves will get quickly under your skin and have you rooting for full-force retaliation. This raw treatment calls upon our instincts and emotions like a Western does as opposed to the more mental approach, or aiming to appeal to the intellect while exploring corruption and power dynamics, per se. Consequently, “Lawless” ends up more thrilling and satisfying than complex and stimulating.
The story zooms in on the youngest, Jack. It’s a more dramatic turn for LaBeouf to be sure, but not exactly out of character. He’s still the cocky-but-naive type, obsessed with the glamor of his trade but lacking the stones to defend himself or more importantly, hold his own amidst the corruption. You’ll be drawn to his innocence, but despise him for his frailty.
It’s Hardy who wins top acting honors in this one as Forrest, the soft-spoken yet most dangerous and brazen of the three. If you had any doubts about Hardy’s versatility or skill in more dramatic fair, this will put them to rest. He’s the real deal. The script also provides him some vulnerable moments that deepen his character. Forrest might be stubborn, but he knows what it takes to survive in this jungle of sorts, and the subtlety of Hardy’s delivery makes him all the more formidable on screen.
If Pearce’s character weren’t so needlessly despicable, he might challenge Hardy more seriously for the film’s best performance, but regardless, he disappears into the role and its his menace that drives it by fueling the characters’ fire and consequently ours as well.
The ladies of “Lawless” — Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska — are wedged in, though they provide a nice balance to an otherwise unapologetically gritty film. We learn little about either woman: Chastain’s Maggie came from a not-so-glamorous job in Chicago and sought out the Bondurants for work, while Wasikowska’s Bertha is the preacher’s daughter whose sole purpose in the script is to ultimately get Jack in trouble. “Lawless” would’ve been a great film if the time were taken to weave them more into the film’s fabric as opposed to a distraction from the blood and moonshine. Gary Oldman’s intriguing mobster character Floyd Banner has a similar fate.
Choosing to view “Lawless” through the lens of a Western set in the South will make a world of difference. As a period drama, it’s generic at best, not really adding anything to the conversation on Prohibition. Seeing it as a Western helps justify the general themes and wild, seat-of-the-pants attitude toward action and character motivation. Either way, it’s a striking and gripping piece of genre filmmaking.
Directed by John Hillcoat
Written by Nick Cave, Matt Bondurant (novel)
Starring: Shia LaBeof, Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, Jason Clarke, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska