In Lawless, the Bondurant brothers Howard (played by Jason Clarke), Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Jack (Shia LeBeouf) run a bootlegging business selling moonshine in what’s been described as the “Wettest County in the World,” Franklin County, Va.
The brothers run a pretty successful operation — until a new deputy from Chicago, Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), decides that he wants to control all of the moonshine profits by any means necessary. After every bootlegger in Franklin succumbs to Charlie’s oppressive will, only the Bondurants have enough guts to stand up to him.
Based on the novel The Wettest County in the World, by Matt Bondurant, Lawless is Bondurant’s account of a time in the lives of his grandfather and great uncles. Nick Cave adapted the screenplay version.
While not being a particularly original story, Lawless benefits from a simple storyline, a historical setting and great casting.
JIM CROW ERA
One result is that Lawless doesn’t contain so much shooting and cars blowing up that the film breaks the sound barrier. No 3-D glasses are needed for this one, either. Director John Hillcoat brings to life the feeling that Lawless is a true-to-life account of a period, the 1930s, when being a lawbreaker often made one a hero.
The audience, immersed in this era, sees three men who were a part of a local legend that they believed themselves. Thus the theme that perception plays a major role in being an outlaw hero.
The lawbreakers-became-heroes dichotomy isn’t new to moviegoers; many prefer their heroes to break a few laws. So Lawless’ tagline (“When the law became corrupt, outlaws became heroes”) is not necessarily a new concept, just a good example of these types of “heroes.”
Despite being set during the Jim Crow era, Lawless shows that the residents of Franklin obeyed the laws, they didn’t really see a need to look down their noses at blacks, like their white counterparts in the South.
This is most evident in Jack’s special interest in Ida Belle (Toni Byrd), a black woman who owns a local bar; Charlie’s appetite for an untouched woman, preferably of color; and the Bondurants’ respect shown to blacks by calling them “ma’am” and “sir,” which wasn’t commonplace at that time.
THE CAST’S THE THING
The best feature of Lawless, though, is its great casting, Hardy as middle brother Forrest – who sounds like the southern version of Bane, his character in The Dark Knight Rises – being the best of all. Hardy has a signature style of being dramatically funny.
There are not many actors who can make a desperate situation turn comical with just a look or syllable, but Hardy makes his mark as a man who is outwardly fierce and coolly menacing, yet painfully shy on the inside.
LaBeouf brings his naïve charm to Jack, “the runt of the litter” and little brother of the trio, who is always trying to prove himself and causing major problems in the process. LaBeouf usually plays a manic version of all of his characters, but he’s much more nicely subdued in Lawless.
Clarke’s wild-eyed Howard is the older brother and the one with the shortest fuse. He’s protective of his siblings and content to be there for his brothers, rather than take the lead. He lets Forrest be the leader to his enforcer.
Jessica Chastain (Forrest’s love interest Maggie Beauford) is good at what she does, disappearing into her characters and making them her own. Chastain’s Maggie serves as the feminine touch and mother figure the brothers are lacking in their lives, as their parents died when they were younger.
In addition, Pearce’s Rakes is just the right amount of sleaze to make anyone want to take a shower. Rakes is like a cross between a pedophile and a snake: creepy.
Lawless may not be the biggest movie to hit theaters this fall season, but it is an ode to the 1930s and a celebration of the legend of the hero outlaw.
It’s also another glowing example of what great casting can do for a film. Great actors, decent writing, and good directing can make a movie shine without costly special effects.
* Pictured above is Shia LaBeouf stars in ‘Lawless.’