enemy’ era splashes with booze and blood in
Starring: Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Guy Pearce
Inflected with the same gritty appreciation
for brutal violence that director John Hillcoat
applied to his Australian-set period Western
“The Proposition,” “Lawless” is a Depression-era
bootleg gangster fantasy baked in booze, blood
and grime. Based on Matt Bondurant’s 2008 fictionalized
account of his grandfather’s moonshine-running
exploits (“The Wettest County in the World”)
in Franklin County, Va., singer-songwriter Nick
Cave takes up screenwriting and musical composition
duties. The result is an entertaining crime
drama embellished with various cartoonish plot
and character elements. Cave’s deconstructed
blues version of Lou Reed’s “White Light / White
Heat” thoughtfully accents the action.
Ardent sincerity from a talented ensemble obfuscates
the film’s more risible aspects. Guy Pearce’s
shrill portrayal of Special Deputy Charlie Rakes,
a corrupt Chicago lawman on a mission to eradicate
Franklin County of its many bootleg still operations,
is laughable nevertheless. Rakes is a sexually
conflicted dandy right out of J. Edgar Hoover’s
playbook. The character may as well have a “V”
for villain stitched across his chest.
The height of Prohibition, circa 1931, makes
a profitable living possible for a cloistered
community of backwoods “hillbillies” who would
otherwise have no way to thrive. Moonshine stills
light up the side of a mountain like “lights
on a Christmas tree.” Benoit Delhomme’s evocative
cinematography captures a timeless quality that
registers as Virginia although the movie was
filmed in Georgia.
The Bondurant brothers — Forest (Tom Hardy),
Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia LaBoeuf)
— have a widespread reputation as the most feared
clan of moonshiners in the region. Forest has
a way with brass knuckles. As with most of the
characters Tom Hardy creates, Forest has a presence
that resonates throughout even when the character
isn’t onscreen. The notorious siblings even
sell their famously-potent jars of white lightening
to local good ole boy police officers until
the fey Charlie Rakes arrives with his own crew
of “law” enforcers to take a cut of the local
economic pie. Every other moonshiner might be
willing to play ball with Deputy Rakes, but
the Bondurants refuse to share. The battle lines
are drawn. Much blood will be spilled.
Gary Oldman chews his limited share of the scenery
as Floyd Banner, a big time Chicago mobster
that does business with Shia LaBoeuf’s Jack
after narrowly avoiding a premature burial.
Oldman’s character is crucial to the story because
Floyd Banner represents an urban version of
the outlaw that Jack aspires to be like. Jack
inches out Forest as the story’s main protagonist.
He starts out as a wimp that finds inner strength
through his latent ambition. While he’s not
the best casting choice for the role, LaBoeuf
delivers a competent performance.
Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska cast glows
of womanly perspective as objects of desire
for Forest and Jack, respectively. Chastain
especially adds dimension to the film for her
character Maggie who resolves to work for the
gang at the gas station they own and romantically
aligns herself with the stoic Forest. The slight
allusion to Bonnie and Clyde is unmistakable.
“Lawless” never pretends to be anything more
than a revved up period-piece gangster movie.
If the movie takes a few too many liberties
regarding the survivability of its invincible
leading characters, the trespass is forgivable.