- Rated R
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All photos © Weinstein Co.
Reviewed by Ezra Stead
hia LaBeouf has announced that he is abandoning big budget Hollywood studio fare in favor of more challenging, independent films. Personally, I understand and applaud his decision, especially since some of his recent Hollywood films – notably the “Transformers” trilogy and “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Unnecessary Sequel” – are among the worst crap put out by Hollywood studios in the last ten years. His latest film, “Lawless,” however, goes a long way toward making me like him more as an actor, though out of the entirely excellent cast, this is really Tom Hardy's show.
Written by songwriter and musician Nick Cave and directed by John Hillcoat – a team that previously brought us the brutally violent and uncompromising Western “The Proposition” – “Lawless” is an interesting intersection between a Western and a gangster film. In fact, taken as either genre alone, it is easily one of the best films of its kind in recent memory, so its blend of the two is especially exciting. Set in Prohibition-era Virginia, it tells the incredible true story of the Bondurant brothers, a close-knit clan of moonshine whiskey bootleggers who have a somewhat self-perpetuating legend of invincibility surrounding them. Jack (LaBeouf), the youngest, is a bit of a pup that’s usually consigned to the less dangerous job of driving and providing a lookout, while Forrest (Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) handle the often nasty business of selling their prohibited wares.
Jack provides a convenient narrator for the story as an audience surrogate simultaneously in awe of his legendary brothers and eager to find his own place in the legend. He and his best friend, Cricket Pate (Dane DeHaan), also idolize Chicago gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) and hope to ascend to his glamorous public enemy status. The older and wiser Forrest, however, does not seek fame; he is just making a living for himself and his brothers the best way he knows how. After previously turning in standout performances like the title character in Nicolas Winding Refn's “Bronson” and Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises,” Hardy creates another indelible cinematic creation as Forrest. A terse, grunting slab of a man, Forrest is prone to offering short philosophical soliloquies right before busting open a face with the brass knuckles he always carries with him.
When corrupt law enforcement officer Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) begins angling for an unearned share of the Bondurants' bootlegging profits, Forrest refuses to buckle as all the other bootleggers in the county are relatively quick to do, and it is only a matter of time before violence erupts. Between Forrest's calm, quiet forcefulness and the more direct and immediate threat of Howard, a ferocious monster “when he's been into that stump whiskey” (which is most of the time), Rakes and anyone else who crosses the Bondurants is in pretty serious trouble. Naturally, Rakes goes after the far less threatening Jack first, brutally beating him as a message to the other two.
Rakes is a suitably memorable villain for Forrest and his brothers to face, an instantly creepy figure with a disturbing mystery surrounding him. He seems to have absolutely no friends of any kind, ferociously antagonizing both the outlaws and his fellow law enforcement officers for no other reason than his own pleasure. He is a vain, despicable bully with a strong taste for horrific violence, played with obvious relish by Pearce. A film as tough and brutal as this one needs a villain who raises an audience's bloodlust, and Rakes fits the bill perfectly.
The least interesting parts of the film are, predictably, the romantic elements, which primarily involve Jack's courtship of a Mennonite preacher's daughter named Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska) and a slow-burn romance between Forrest and Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a classy Chicago woman who left the big city to find a quieter life in Virginia. Of the two subplots, the latter is strongest, perhaps simply because Hardy and Chastain are the more engaging actors. Jack's forbidden love of Bertha is fairly standard stuff, but it is shot as beautifully as the rest of the film and weaves into the main storyline quite well.
In addition to Hillcoat, Cave and their stellar cast, credit is due to cinematographer Benoit Delhomme, who also shot “The Proposition.” This is a tremendously gorgeous film, with imagery that is often simultaneously lovely and disturbing, such as an enormous wave of dust that covers an entire town in one scene, or the haunting sight of a tarred and feathered bootlegger in another. Filled with shots like these, as well as brilliant performances and iconic dialogue, “Lawless” is a nearly perfect, classical film that deserves to be mentioned alongside great revisionist Westerns like “There Will Be Blood” and “No Country for Old Men.”
Two-Disc Blu-ray Review:
Fans of Matt Bondurant's historical novel will love Anchor Bay's Blu-ray release of "Lawless," which includes a look at the photographical research he used in writing the book and a featurette on the region that it takes place in. There's also a really good commentary by Bondurant and director John Hillcoat that focuses on shooting the film and the real events that inspired it, a making-of featurette where the cast and crew discuss the story and its characters, some deleted scenes, and a DVD and digital copy.