Adapted from the book The Wettest County in the World by Frank Bondurant, Lawless tells the story of the author’s grandfather and granduncles, the Bondurant brothers. An 18 rated, gangster/western hybrid, it’s something of a rarity these days, and the fact that a period piece aimed at the adult market was able to finally get made, a previous attempt to produce it having collapsed because of lack of finances, can only be a good thing.
Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia LaBeouf) Bondurant are infamous suppliers of illegal moonshine whisky in Franklin County during the Prohibition era. They supply the local law enforcement as well as civilians, are used to having little trouble with their operation, and have hired Maggie (Jessica Chastain) to be a new waitress for their bar. However, this soon ends when a new special deputy, Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) arrives from Chicago, determined to put an end to bootlegging whisky.
Frank provides the voice-over for Lawless and is nominally our protagonist, acting as something of an audience surrogate as the youngest and least experienced of the brothers. In practice, though, the focus is on Forrest for most of the time, their quiet, efficient leader. Hardy’s portrayal of the character recalls the Man With No Name, in that he rarely speaks, speaks very softly when he does, and is capable of sudden, shocking acts of violence when provoked. However, he also cares a great deal for his brothers, and Hardy plays Forrest as a mother figure to the other two: he wears a cardigan for the whole film, and Hardy supposedly wanted scenes of Forrest darning socks to be in the final cut. This combination of matriarchy and brutality makes for a very interesting character, sadly far more engaging than Frank. LaBeouf plays the role well, but Frank is a fairly standard naÃ¯ve young man with dreams of becoming a glamorous gangster, and doesn’t command your attention like Forrest does.
Guy Pearce is also entertaining as the psychotic, obsessive-compulsive Rakes. The character is a bit of a caricature, almost a pantomime villain, really, but Pearce clearly relishes the role, which makes Rakes very fun to watch and, more importantly, satisfying to hate. Howard, the eldest brother played by Clarke, sadly ends up being simply the other one: he has the occasional moment where he snaps, goes into a drunken rage and beats someone up, but he doesn’t have much to do here. Likewise Gary Oldman as Frank’s Chicago gangster idol Floyd Banner; Oldman is a fantastic actor, but he feels wasted in the role, having only around ten minutes of screen time. Chastain is very impressive as the brothers’ waitress/ Forrest’s love interest, but Frank’s romantic subplot involving the local preacher’s daughter Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) sadly doesn’t contribute much to the plot other than giving Frank opportunities to screw up while trying to impress her.
Lawless is an extremely, indeed surprisingly violent film. It pulls no punches in its willingness to accurately depict the consequences of getting shot, punched in the neck with brass knuckles, and, in one harrowing and deeply unsettling sequence, having your throat cut. So many films sanitise their violence, and it’s very pleasing to see a film like Lawless which is more than happy to depict the ugly side of its characters’ trade. The action tends to come in short, intense bursts; the scenes often don’t last long, but are extremely effective despite of, and indeed partly because of, that fact.
Lawless may not be good enough to be a serious contender come awards season, but it’s absolutely worthwhile all the same. A good film for the end of the summer blockbuster season: it doesn’t have the sheer spectacle of a summer tentpole, but makes up for it with a mostly great cast, good action sequences and an entertaining, if straightforward, story with more than one horrible twist.