There’s a kind of magic to the crimes of the old days – the days people like myself can only look back on through various forms of art and document. We see people in their fedoras, cradling tommy guns and wearing vests, posing against slick cars and looking like the devil come to do business. Their lifestyles are mythic, full of violence and crime of the most romantic sort. Gangsters, bootleggers, mafiosos; these are the men that movies seemed made to deify.
So it takes a certain kind of movie to bring these figures down to a human level, to cover them in dirt and rough them up enough to remove the magic and leave behind only the hardened, damaged men beneath those clothes and behind those guns. Yet somehow, Lawless, that is what you manage to become; a movie that acts as an antidote to the cinematic sheen previously bestowed on these kinds of men, and yet similarly elevates their spirits and grit further than ever before.
You follow the Bondurant brothers, a trio of moonshiners who make money selling their “white lightening” by the jar around Franklin County and some outlying areas. Times are changing, though, and a corrupt Commonwealth’s Attorney is seeking to get his cut, consolidating all the bootleggers into a single profit stream. Not ones to take orders from outsiders, though, the boys push back, bringing upon themselves the wrath of Special Agent Charlie Rakes.
The currency in this crime economy is violence. The elder Bondurants – stoic Forrest (Tom Hardy) and cavalier Howard (Jason Clarke) – are pros and employing violence for the purpose of controlling fear in their favor. The younger brother, Jack (Shia LaBeouf), is far less accustomed to the practice, though he does have a taste for the lifestyle it would afford him. The difference between Jack and his brothers – between the men who have what it takes to live the life but refuse to put on the airs, and the boy who can’t handle the job but wants the flash – is a compelling one.
While LaBeouf is perhaps the biggest surprise here, bringing a level of vulnerability and naiveté to his role that sells his constant foibles, each of the actors charged with bringing these brothers to life is riveting. Hardy is a hulking presence, but his manner of both carrying himself and speaking imbues Forrest with a kind of quiet menace that easily seques into caring and thoughtfulness. Clarke, however, is a true standout playing the broken and guilt-ridden middle child who has to come to terms with the various ways he may have let his brothers down. In his eyes and his expression are pages of dialogue that never need to be spoken.
Of course without an outside force to work on their fragile triumvirate all we would have is a great character drama. In Special Agent Rakes, however, we have the threat that will test, strain, and bind these brothers in ways that none of them could predict. Guy Pearce plays Rakes as a man seemingly divorced from any sense of reality; his eyebrows shaved off, his hair meticulously parted right down the center, and his manner impeccable. He is a fastidious and prideful man, but one also versed in the language and power of violence, and his righteous fury threatens to burn down everything the boys care about.
The mounting tension between Rakes and the Bondurant brothers parallel’s Jack’s evolution into something more than a mere hanger-on to his brothers’ infamy. This is your heart, Lawless, but your real raw power comes from John Hillcoat’s direction and Nick Cave’s script. Cave knows when to ratchet the stakes higher, and when to bring certain pieces of information to the fore in order to best affect the story. Hillcoat, meanwhile, is a master at showing not only violence, but the reverberations that violence has in the lives of the characters. There are no small wounds here, and no moments of seemingly super human strength. It is rumored that the brothers are immortal, but the font of their supposed immortality is in their ability to absorb punishment, not deflect it completely.
You are an entertaining, violent, and at times strikingly moving film. I haven’t even touched on the part played by the women in the boys’ lives (played by radiant and capable Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska) nor Gary Oldman’s small but stellar turn as a local crime boss, yet each of these pieces of your story only serves to further the drama at the center of your whirlwind of violence. Their roles cannot be overstated, nor should their part to play be too overly telegraphed. The joy, after all, of any good story is in the unfolding.
As a piece of crime-driven period entertainment you’re nothing short of a triumph, and that you add into the mix a deeper sense of character and story is all the more reason to seek you out.
Brian J. Roan