Distributed By: The Weinstein Company
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
Moonshine, otherwise known as white lightning, hooch, etc., is high proof alcohol brewed in an unlicensed still. During the Prohibition Era, brewing and distributing moonshine was a lucrative business. During the Depression, it would be the only business destined to prosper. It was during this era that the Bondurant Brothers of Franklin County, Virginia made the most of their trade. Based on the book The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, grandson of the youngest of the Bondurant Brothers, the movie Lawless tells their story.
The bootlegging business had been going well for the Bondurants ever since they had tried their hand at the trade. Seemingly running a respectable general store in Franklin County, the Bondurants were really raking in their profits from their moonshine runs throughout the county. They didn't make much - just enough to get by, which was just fine with oldest brother Forrest (Tom Hardy) who ran the operation. Middle brother, Howard (Jason Clarke) was fine with things the way they were, as long as there was enough hooch for drinking as well as selling. But youngest brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf) wanted more.
Not much for the rougher, and oft times bloodier, aspects of the moonshine trade, Jack had a mind for business and aspirations to be more than just a hooch driver. Nothing would deter him from his dream, not even the appearance of a new Deputy in town by the name of Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce). By all visual accounts, Rakes appeared to be a stern talking dandy, but beneath his outward appearance, Rakes had a penchant for brutality. Rakes' request to be cut in on the hooch trade in Franklin County was less a request than a demand and anyone who refused to pay duty would be harshly dealt with. But the Bondurants would not be bullied, seeming to believe in the legend told by locals of their invincibility.
That invincibility would be tested time and time again, especially after Jack's aspirations lead the Bondurants to a deal with Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), a former Chicago gangster with deep pockets and a smooth talking Tommy gun. As soon as the profits roll in, Jack begins dressing fancily, driving around in the best cars and courting the preacher's daughter (Mia Wasikowska), seemingly flaunting the Bondurant's good fortune in the face of Deputy Rakes. It becomes Rakes' mission in life to destroy the Bondurants once and for all.
It isn't often that you find yourself rooting for the bad guys in a movie. There have been a few exceptions in my movie-viewing years: Robin Hood, Han Solo (he was a smuggler, ya know, and he did shoot first, no matter what anyone else says), Bonnie and Clyde, to name a few. This time you can't help but root for the bad guys, because the moonshiners have a great deal less evil intent than the law in these parts. Charlie Rakes is pure evil personified and Guy Pearce plays that role to the nines. By the time you get through the first half hour of the film, you find yourself despising this man and his fancy suits and perfectly pomaded hair for his extreme acts of brutality against the bootleggers of the county and any woman he decides to bed. Faced with a choice between him and the Bondurants, how could you not help but root for the moonshiners?
After seeing Tom Hardy in such a horrible portrayal of Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, I found his portrayal of Forrest Bondurant to be refreshing and somewhat endearing. A rough and tumble bootlegger by nature, Forrest has a hard time expressing himself in more tender moments. No more is this evident than in his dealings with Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain), a former Chicago dancer who moved to Franklin County for a quieter life and found herself deeply embroiled in the feud between the moonshiners and Charlie Rakes. Forrest's stumbling, grunting ways whenever he is around Maggie reveals a shy, unassuming nature one would have never expected when seeing how he is accustomed to dealing with troublemakers who threaten him and his family.
Funny that Tom Hardy should be the first actor I talk about when Shia LaBeouf is really supposed to be the star of this film. While I liked LeBeouf's acting and his screen presence, the reality is that Jack Bondurant was a less likeable character than Forrest. Sure, it was his aspirations that made the Bondurant moonshine business more successful, but his character was greedy and boastful, often getting himself into trouble that his brothers would have to get him out of. It was Forrest that we rooted for in this film more than Jack, although this was supposed to be predominantly Jack's story.
Jessica Chastain was a scene stealer in The Help and she takes up those reins again in Lawless. She exudes a sensuality that makes viewers immediately fall in love with her even while still trying to decide whether she is one of the good bad guys or the evil bad guys. Every time she appears on camera, all eyes are immediately drawn to her and her onscreen charisma with Tom Hardy is absolutely perfect. It's inspiring enough to make anyone believe in the princess and the frog story, especially because this one is based on fact.
Other notable performances include Jason Clarke's hard fighting, hard drinking Howard Bondurant, Dane DeHaan as the slightly addled, but sweet-dispositioned Cricket and Gary Oldman as gangster Floyd Banner. Oldman doesn't appear on screen for very long in the film, but his screen presence is extraordinary.
Lawless is more than just an intriguing story about a piece of American history. There are messages hidden in the film, such as never judge a book by its cover, the greed of man is an inherent sin that will lead to his downfall and it's all in good fun until someone gets hurt. The visuals of the movie are awe inspiring and the music is mostly backwater bluegrass, stomping-good fun complete with banjos and washboards. Action fans will love the fast cars, fist fights and shootouts while the romantics out there will love the stories of Jack and Bertha (Wasikowska) and Forrest and Maggie.
I went into the theaters thinking Lawless looked like a great action film. I walked out thinking that Lawless was a well-rounded film featuring plenty of action, but also enough to appeal to lovers of romance and drama. The movie is not for the faint of heart as it can be rather graphic at times, but I found it to be a rather fun and exciting film that I wouldn't mind viewing again in the near future. If someone asked, I probably wouldn't mind seeing Lawless in the theaters again, despite the cost of the movie ticket - now that's saying something!