I’m a Bondurant. We don’t lay down for nobody — Forrest Bondurant
There are many contributing factors to the success of John Hillcoats (The Road) Lawless: Nick Caves strong script, Hillcoats direction, excellent performances (particularly Tom Hardy), and a real-life story so outrageous that it cant be fiction. The film which is based on the historical novel, The Wettest County in the World, tells the story of the Bondurant brothers, a trio of infamous bootleggers in Franklin, Virginia during the Prohibition-era. The Bondurants are almost mythical figures in Franklin as the people in that county believe them to be invincible; and the Bondurants whole-heartedly buy into their own legend. The film quickly establishes the older two brothers (Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke) Forrest and Howard as the anti-heroes and the youngest brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf) as the innocent, but eager apprentice. The initial half hour of the film allows for character development, making us familiar with the brothers, their lifestyle, and their love interests. Also introduced is the villain of the story, Special Agent Charlie Rakes played with devilish panache by Guy Pearce. LaBeoufs character Jack takes things into his own hands after Forrests invincibility is put to the test when he clandestinely arranges the largest deal the brothers have ever made. From then on we see Jack start to become his own man as the older brothers finally bring him into the fold. At this point, the Bondurants are the only ones who havent given in to the extortion and graft of Special Agent Rakes. This can only lead down one path, a climactic showdown between mortal enemies.
One thing I really appreciated is how director John Hillcoat brought the feel of a western to this tale of moonshiners given that the Prohibition-era South was much like the Old West. He did an excellent job of injecting his personal style into the film. Tom Hardy has had many brilliant performances in his career, and many big budget roles as of late, but his performance as Forrest Bondurant is hands down one of the best. He steals the majority of scenes in which he is present. He is a strong willed, no-nonsense business man, yet when introduced to the lovely Maggie (played by Jessica Chastain) he appears to be tongue-tied and awkward. His character has a certain depth that sets him apart from the others and he completely owns the Southern accent. Jason Clarke does well as the eldest brother Howard, a perma-drunk who handles most of the business with Forrest. For most of the movie Clarkes character is a resigned, easy-going person, but every so often he becomes an intense and ferocious man. Jessica Chastain is wonderful as the city girl Maggie. No stranger to big personalities Maggie is the only one who can appease Forrest, making us believe that she feels something for Forrest. Bertha Minnix is the innocent, devout daughter of the town pastor, and Jack Bondurants love. Mia Wasikowska puts all these aspects of her character on display in the movie. As Jack is courting her, Wasikowska shows the innocence, but also an adventurous side thats willing to go against her fathers wishes. When it comes to Shia LaBeouf, I must first say that he is a good actor. The thing about LaBeouf that makes me angry is that he seems to be type-casted. His characters always follow the same archetype; the young kid learning from some kind of a mentor figure. In this film its his brothers and Gary Oldmans character Floyd Banner. He plays these characters well but if he ever wants to elevate his status as an actor he needs to take different roles.
Overall, Lawless is a great film that clearly has its strong points. My major critique on the film is that it fails to create empathy towards the characters. Even though they are likable, whenever the Bondurants invincibility is tested, you kind of want them to fail. When Dane DeHaans Cricket Pate is apprehended by Agent Rakes, you dont feel for him. For those that love history mixed with Western genre themes, this is the movie for you. Sure its not in the 1800s, but the spirit of the Wild West is there. For the casual moviegoer, this film is quite entertaining. For film aficionados, this is a solid piece of cinema.