Depression-era America was a rusty, booze-smelling, bloody place. Factor in Prohibition, and the years between 1929 and the early 1940s were not a rosy place — especially for three bootlegging brothers from Franklin County, Virginia.

This is where Lawless, directed by John Hillcoat (The Road) and scripted by Australian goth-punk master Nick Cave, takes place. Based on the novel by Matt Bondurant, the movie is born from the true story of the infamous Bondurant brothers. The gun-slinging, tobacco chewing brothers made bootlegging a gold mine, initializing what we may consider to be one of the earliest “get rich quick” schemes (before internet start-ups and celebrity workout videos), if occasionally a barbarous one at that. With a dynamite cast starring Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke, and Shia LaBeouf as Forrest, Howard, and Jack Bondurant (respectively), Lawless is a well-dramatized exercise in gut-spilling, more than it is a movie.
Just like a three-legged bar table, the plot is a bit wobbly on its feet. The Bondurants seem to be a cheery group, selling moonshine to their neighbours and local law-enforcers. Until, one day, a new deputy named Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), comes to town to get a cut of the business. The movie is basically a series of confrontations between team Bondurant and team Rakes, until the final showdown comes.  To add some more fuel to the fire, a crime-boss from Chicago (Gary Oldman) weighs in on the action as well.

As a whole, Lawless is far from being a classic, but its sheer enjoyment lies in watching a magnificent ensemble cast work together. As Forrest Bondurant, Tom Hardy gives a minimalist, but memorable performance. Think Bane without the mask, and with a Southern accent. His character is threatening in his demeanour, but like a ticking bomb, he doesn’t react until provoked. LaBeouf steps up his game as the cowardly little brother who lacks his older siblings’ talent for breaking jaws and dismembering enemies.

While Hardy and LaBeouf show a real range here, the other actors are not given enough to do. Mia Wasikowska plays the preacher-man’s daughter that Jack Bondurant falls in love with, while Jessica Chastain co-stars as Maggie Beauford (a Chicago dancer who came to Franklin County because “the city can grind a girl down,” only to find herself looking after the Bondurants’ pub). Even though her character is more an observer than an active participant in the movie’s action, Chastain’s enigmatic presence is felt in every scene she shares with the cast. Similarly, Jason Clarke as the middle brother, Howard, isn’t given much to do except chew tobacco and kick some ass. As Rakes, Guy Pearce is a snake in a bow-tie; his rendition of the corrupt deputy is the perfect caricature of a villain: sleazy, well-dressed, and crazy-eyed.  My biggest beef with Lawless is that there just wasn’t enough of Gary Oldman. He only has two or three scenes, but of course he steals the spotlight in all of them. Notice how an arsenal of British actors (Hardy, Pearce, and Oldman) can make an American western stand out.

Overall, Lawless is an entertaining movie, but thank the amazing cast for that. Hillcoat isn’t much of a visionary, and the film isn’t as dark as it should be. Still, the more violent scenes (a good 80% of the film) are realistic enough to make you look away a couple of times. Makes you wonder what they put in that moonshine of theirs…

By Radina Papukchieva

Twitter @Papukchieva

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About Radina Papukchieva

Radina Papukchieva came to live in, be consumed by, and love Montreal in 2003 from Bulgaria, with her mother and little sister. She is still a semester away from graduating from Concordia University, where she is doing a double major in journalism and communication and cultural studies, as well as a minor in film studies. Her interests include film, TV, and popular culture. And Woody Allen. She is a film writer for CultMontreal.com and co-creator of The Cafe Phenomenon. Her list of inspirational people includes Tina Fey, primarily. Among her other interests are music, art, literature, and of course, food. Her film reviews have appeared in The Concordian and The Mirror.

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