Moonshine and mayhem
It is a film that Quentin Tarantino and anyone who has seen “The Godfather” films would likely love. So why is the brutal, bloody, and occasionally humorous bootlegger thriller “Lawless” and its terrific cast flying so low under the movie radar? Buried at the end of the summer season with little marketing hype, “Lawless” will likely die quietly at the box office instead of possibly garnering some Oscar buzz were it to be released later in the year. Or perhaps the timing isn’t right for a moonshine and mayhem film with some definite moral ambiguity?
Regardless, “Lawless,” adapted from a novel by Matt Bondurant, who wrote about his family’s risky whiskey business in the hills of Franklin County, Virginia, is a compelling, authentic eye-popping tale with a worthy and ready cast that forces any of the film’s flaws to the back burner.
The Bondurant family, having suffered losses in World War I and at the hand of the Spanish flu, rises to prominence selling high-grade hooch while giving a cut of the profits to the much obliged local law enforcement. The boss of the family is intimidating Forrest (a menacing, gravely-voiced Tom Hardy), who settles arguments with his brass knuckles. Boozy oldest brother Howard (Jason Clarke) is the enforcer, while the youngest, Jack (Shia LaBeouf) hasn’t the temperament or cojones to carry his weight just yet.
As the film’s central character, LaBeouf isn’t quite ready to carry a film like this, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t his finest performance to date. Jack wants badly to contribute and is utterly spellbound while catching a famed mobster (Gary Oldman, excellent as always) taking care of business. He’s also the sensitive one with an eye for preacher’s daughter Bertha (Mia Wasikowska from “Alice in Wonderland”) and a penchant for getting in over his head. The scenes involving Jack and Bertha offer some much needed lightness in a fairly grim film. In a small role is Jessica Chastain (“The Help”), heating up her scenes with her typical flair as barkeep Maggie, while Guy Pearce is positively smashing as the fastidious and sadistic dandy Special Deputy Charley Rakes.
Devoid of a true protagonist and marred by some anachronistic profanity, “Lawless” is nonetheless beautifully shot and in good hands with Australian director John Hillcoat (“The Road”), and a well written screenplay and score provided by musician-writer Nick Cave.
As an artful display of harsh early 20th century Americana, “Lawless” is an intoxicating yarn.
Rated R for strong bloody violence, language and brief sexuality/nudity.