With Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Guy Pearce, Jason Clarke, Jessica Chastain. Written by Nick Cave. Directed by John Hillcoat. Rated R (for strong bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity). 115 minutes.
A strong cast and a fresh spin on the gangster film help overcome a script that occasionally lapses into cliché, making LAWLESS an unusually good late summer film. It’s based on the true story of a family of bootleggers in rural Virginia who have been doing quite well during Prohibition until a new Federal agent comes to town. Our sympathies are with the bootleggers, but unlike the classic 1930s crime films, this is set entirely in the hills and small towns, where blocking one bridge can shut down an operation.
Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy) is the stalwart leader of the group. He stays calm and uses violence when necessary, not as a matter of habit. Middle brother Howard (Jason Clarke) is the hothead given to sampling the family brand a bit too much. He’s loyal but unreliable. Then there’s the youngest, Jack (Shia LaBeouf), who has ideas and ambitions but has yet to be tested. If they seem a bit like the Corleones, it’s not an unusual family dynamic.
The arrival of special deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) upsets everything. Forrest was used to paying off the local authorities with a few jars of moonshine. Charlie wants a piece of the action or he’s going to put them out of business. It’s a riveting performance by Pearce who, with slicked back hair and leather gloves, seems to get a sexual rush from his corrupt ways.
There are some women involved as well, and both of them take the story in unexpected directions. Maggie (Jessica Chastain) arrives from Chicago looking totally out of place in the backwoods of Virginia, but it turns out that’s the point. She’s running away from city life and finds that tending to the brothers’ legitimate business is more to her liking. Meanwhile Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), the local preacher’s daughter, has caught Jack’s eye. It’s an improbable relationship and yet the young actors make it work.
Indeed, the performances are what make this engaging, whether it’s a couple of scenes with Gary Oldman as a crime kingpin in a nearby town or Pearce’s disturbing intensity as the special deputy, these are actors taking the material seriously. Hardy (who had to wear a face mask all through “The Dark Knight Rises”) is subtly compelling as the tough guy who is supposedly indestructible. He plays with the idea that Forrest may be using his legend not only to intimidate others but may have started believing it himself. Perhaps inspired by his costars LaBeouf, presumably having made his fortune as one of the less robotic cast members of the “Transformers” series, gets back to serious acting here.