Lawless is based on the true story of the Bondurant brothers – Forest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia Labeouf) – who were hillbilly moonshine peddlers in Virginia during prohibition in the 1930’s. At first they have a cosy arrangement with the local sheriffs flogging rot gut whiskey around the hills and seem to be free from the violence surrounding the illicit booze trade in cities like Chicago. This changes when sadistic lawman Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) arrives in town and embarks on a vicious campaign to wipe out the brothers.
The film reunites director John Hillcoat and screen writer Nick Cave who gave us the brutal Aussie western The Proposition. Like that film, Lawless is set in a world where savage violence, including shootings, bashings, slashings and stabbings, is an everyday occurrence. Suffice to say this film is not for the squeamish.
Between the scenes of ultra-violence, however, the film has an oddly amiable feel as the boys industriously develop their criminal business and even romance local ladies Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska (both of whom are very good in limited roles). During these quieter scenes Hardy and the others are genuinely likeable even though five minutes earlier we saw them bashing someone’s head in.
While the violence may be excessive and not to everyone’s taste, this is still a well-crafted crime drama, with a sinewy sense of period detail and a genuine backwoods feel fed by a soundtrack full of earthy folk and mountain music.
The film’s impact is diminished, though, by some questionable performances particularly Guy Pearce who, as the maniacal lawman Rakes, chews the scenery like Godzilla and is often more comical than menacing. Labeouf, who occupies more screen time than any other character, is also too much of a goofball to be a romantic lead. Tom hardy with his a hulking frame is, as always, a powerful screen presence although it was unwise to give him so many comical ticks such as his guttural grunting speech and his apparent indestructibility, even if the real Forrest Bondurant had qualities.
There are also some issues with the script. With the focus spread between Hardy, Labeouf and Pearce, the story lacks a centre which diminishes its dramatic impact. Also, the script contains some irritating loose ends, for example, it makes a big deal of introducing Gary Oldman’s gangster character Floyd Banner but doesn’t really feature him in the overall story arc. Jason Clarke’s Howard is also an underdeveloped character.
This is a flawed film but worth seeing for its well-staged action, generally strong performances and period authenticity.
Nick’s rating: Three stars.
Director(s): John Hillcoat
Release date: 11th Oct 2012
Running time: 116 mins.
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