REVIEW: Rollicking But Rough Lawless Creates Bloody, Intoxicating Prohibition-Era World

Movieline Score: 8
Lawless Red-Band Trailer

As rollicking and rough as a drive down a dirt road with no suspension, Lawless is a tale of three-bootlegging brothers from Prohibition-era Franklin County, Virginia, who are, in the words of one character, some "hard-ass crackers." Directed by Australia's John Hillcoat (The Road) and written by musician Nick Cave (who's adapted Matt Bondurant's historical novel The Wettest County in the World), Lawless is, like their last collaboration The Propositiona kind of remixed Western at heart. It's a story in which the law and the outlaws are equally outsized and dangerous — and a world in which the fighting has nothing to do with keeping order and everything to do with displays of strength.

"It is not the violence that sets men apart. It is the distance that he is prepared to go," declares oldest brother Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy), the hardest boiled of them all. To say that Lawless (or The Proposition) romanticizes violence isn't quite right — every tommy-gun bullet wound and knife wound is sickeningly visceral, and when a character gets his throat cut the man doing the deed has to saw through resisting flesh. But the film does relish and find lyricism in these tribal philosopher psychopaths who use force with the measured anticipation of an oenophile savoring a sip of wine. The sheer appreciation Lawless has for its characters and its setting makes it a pleasure  to settle into, even though the film can be carelessly formless and feel like a rough draft that was never sculpted into something more meaningful.

As Jack Bondurant, the youngest of the three brothers and the one most eager to prove himself, Shia LaBeouf, is both the primary focus of the film and its narrator — an unfortunate thing, since he's also the character we least want to spend time with. Forrest is so tough he's developed a mythology around him, that even he might believe, about being invincible -- and given the ordeal he survives in this film, there might be something to that. Middle sibling Howard (Jason Clarke) is huge and half-feral, especially when he's on one of his benders. But Jack's been kept on the outside of the family business, allowed only to be the driver as the brothers travel the county, dispensing corn whiskey. That changes when an act of aggression by two out-of-towners gives him the opportunity to make a deal with gangster Floyd Banner (a gleeful Gary Oldman) after almost dying at his hands.

At the core of Lawless is the escalating conflict between the Bondurant brothers and a corrupt Chicago lawman named Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) who's coming down hard on the county to get protection money from its many moonshiners. But there are plenty of detours taken: Jack woos preacher's daughter Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) and starts up his own stills with the disabled Cricket (Dane DeHaan). Forrest makes sparks with dancer-turned-waitress Maggie (Jessica Chastain).

Lawless is really about the adventures of the Bondurants and their friends and foes during Prohibition, and the characters are so compelling it would really be enough to just spend time in their presence. Forrest in particular is a memorable contradiction: Aside from his flashes of savagery, Hardy maintains an almost grandfatherly air. Clad in cardigans and prone to muttering, he refuses to step down to anyone and yet, is utterly undone by Maggie's arrival in his life.

As Rakes, Pearce is almost too outsized for the film to contain him. With his blackened, immaculately pomaded hair, parted dramatically down the center, and his pale eyebrows, he looks like a cross between Crispin Glover and Voldemort. He wields his vague sexuality — "You're a peach," he croons to Jack before punching him in the face — like a threat, mincing in his flawless suit right before delivering a ruthless beating, then ceremoniously peeling off his blood-stained leather gloves. It's a unique performance, albeit so mannered it almost rends the already accommodating fabric of the film. Factor in the prevalence of international actors in the cast and the unfocused nature of the narrative,and Lawless seems to take place in an impressionistic space rather than a historical one.

It's Charlie and Forrest that we want to see have a showdown, though it's Jack who more often ends up in the former's crosshairs. It's not LaBeouf's fault that his character is the flimsiest. The story keeps giving him foolish things to do to bring around more action, including accidentally leading the police to the family's stills. His role as catalyst eventually becomes irritating because we don't want the story to move along.

The world that Lawless presents is so vivid and pleasing that we want to linger over the details. It's a film that finds delicate beauty in the image of someone bleeding out in the snow, and turns a drunken, impulsive visit to church service into an overwhelming sensory experience. The appeal of Lawless is not the story it tells but rather the world that it creates.

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