by Steve Habrat
If I have learned one thing at the movies this summer, I have learned that Tom Hardy is one scary man. I think if I were to pass him on the sidewalk, I’d quickly cross the street to avoid him. As if his villainous turn as hulking terrorist Bane in The Dark Knight Rises wasn’t enough to make this guy one intimidating bastard, wait until you get a load of him in director John Hillcoat’s Lawless, a Prohibition era thriller about bootleggers in Franklin County, Virginia. Based on the book The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, Hillcoat’s thriller, which is based on a true story, does find a few common gangster movie qualities blotching the screenplay by Nick Cave. However, Lawless is saved by the explosive performances from this must-see ensemble cast, who all seem to be relishing this material. Still, I really wish I could say that Lawless avoided things we have seen from movies like this in the past but sadly, it gets caught in the same web that many of these films do. The story line does gasp one breath of fresh air by its use of Prohibition as the backdrop for these outlaws. I also admired the setting, far away from the big city bustle and nestled in the hills where Mother Nature isolates the Bondurant boys behind her natural wooded wall. Yet Lawless is sent into the stars by the terrifying turn from Hardy, a role that I can only hope is not forgotten come Awards season.
Welcome to the hills of Prohibition era Franklin County, Virginia, a serene and seemingly peaceful place where bootlegging runs rampant. The stars of this bootlegging party are the Bondurant boys, who seem to be on top of the world just out of the clutches of the law. The Bondurant boys are made up of the quiet but threatening Forrest (Played by Tom Hardy), who is also the leader of the group, hothead Howard (Played by Jason Clarke), and runt Jack (Played by Shia LaBeouf). The boys run their illegal business out of their dusty roadside bar but they soon find themselves harassed by flamboyant Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Played by Guy Pearce), a hot shot from Chicago who wants a cut of the profits that the Bondurant boys bring in. After Forrest refuses, Rakes comes down hard on the bootleggers nestled in the hills and slowly begins shutting down their operations in the most brutal ways he can. After a nasty run in with Jack and a murder attempt is made on Forrest, a war is sparked in the Franklin County hills but the Bondurants have no intention of shutting down their business.
Cold and bristly, with tons of blood to get tossed around the furiously exhaustive sets, Lawless sure is one hell of a vicious ride into an untamed world. Prohibition is something that you never hear too much about, so it comes as a major shock to see it done with so much fury. People are harshly stabbed, shot, tarred, feathered, rapped, tortured, and beaten, cutthroat punishments for a cutthroat business I suppose. Despite the horrific violence (trust me, it is horrific), the film itself boasts rich amounts of cinematography from Benoit Delhomme, who makes every scene of the film appropriate to cut out and frame on your wall. While the film has plenty of violence to go around, there are some thick dramatics draped over this lawless world, so thick that you could almost cut it with a dull and rusty blade. There are two delicately delivered romances, one between Forrest and bar waitress Maggie Beauford (Played by Jessica Chastain), a former dancer looking that desperately wanted a quiet life but has stumbled into something worse and one between Jack and Bertha Minnix (Played by Mia Wasikowska), a seemingly innocent preacher’s daughter with a rebellious streak. Both are delivered with heart-on-the-sleeve compassion, making us root for both love stories to triumph in this world of blood.
Lawless achieves a must-see status due to the performances, especially the one from the hulking Hardy, who portrays Forrest Bondurant as a grunting bear of a man who speaks in a southern drawl that sounds like grinding gravel mixed with thick globs of molasses. While he is technically the good guy, Hardy owns any room he walks into and he leaves you wiping the sweat off of your palms when he leaves. The characters all whisper that Forrest is invincible and you will be left half believing it throughout the runtime. At times, he can be surprisingly funny, especially when Chastain’s Maggie tries to offer some affection his way. When he has his back against the wall, God forbid he reaches in his cardigan pocket and pulls out his dread brass knuckles, which he uses with precise savagery. While Hardy deserves a spot in the Best Supporting Actor category at the Academy Awards, he finds some competition from Pearce, a corrupt lawman with oily hair and dressed in fancy suits. Pearce, who I swear is incapable of delivering a lousy performance, is just as unpredictable as Hardy when it comes to his temper. Vaguely perverted and as slippery as they come, he is a corrupt soul who finds delight in bringing down a wave of misery on all who cross him.
In a way, it is almost a shame that Hardy and Pearce are so good because they actually overshadow the other great performances. LaBeouf, who has recently said that he is done with big studio films, punches in a subtle performance that slowly flares up into an uncontrollable rage. He’s a runt that becomes reckless and you will hate him for it, especially when he has a good thing right in the palm of his hand. That good thing is sweet Bertha, the gentle daughter of a preacher who hides her interest in the business that Jack and his brothers are into. Clarke gets to play the bloodthirsty psycho of the three Bondurant boys. You will cringe when Forrest decides to let him off his leash and you pray that Forrest puts him back on it the second he is unleashed. Chastain is as gorgeous as ever as the delicate Maggie, who has the hots for the closed off Forrest. Along with Wasikowska’s Bertha, they form a calming force that balances out all the violence. Dane DeHaan joins this gangster party as the handicapped Cricket, who helps the Bondurant boys brew the their liquor. Rounding out the supporting players is the superb Gary Oldman, who stops by to blow us all away as Floyd Banner, a mobster who enjoys carrying a Tommy gun around and blasting away right in front of an innocent audience.
As the sense of doom wafts through the trees of Franklin County, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis provide an appropriately nippy score that is all twanging guitars, bluegrass chants, and static hums that slowly build as the tension mounts. Lawless certainly suffers from some predictability but I will say that there are a few surprise scenes that really catch you off guard. Still, I am willing to forgive because Hillcoat’s work draws you in close and then refuses to let you walk away cleanly. He shakes you up and he does it in such a tasteful manner. While I can’t say that I liked Lawless as much as Hillcoat’s scorching Australian western The Proposition, I will say that I enjoyed the film a bit more than his previous big screen offering The Road. Overall, Lawless may be brewed from a recipe we have all tried before but this batch has enough burn going down and a unique lingering buzz to have you reaching for a second shot and maybe even a third.