For you history buffs, don’t miss this film. Yet it is extraordinarily violent at every turn, so consider yourself warned if you choose to enter.
Lawless is a knockout historical film that tells a sordid tale of the profound ugliness permeating our national Prohibition Era. It takes place in Franklin County, Tennessee, in 1931, a time when nearly every farmer in the Ozarks was engaged in the production of moonshine. It is not a pretty story, but this definitely was not a pretty era in our nation’s history.
The movie centers around three brothers in the Bondurant family, played by Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf and Jason Clarke. Mr. Hardy plays Forrest Bondurant, the clear leader of the clan, and his character resembles a slightly more likeable version of the villain Bain that he played in this year’s spectacular The Dark Knight Rises. Forrest is a man of few words and simple intentions. It’s almost as if he has a plaque above his bed that reads, “Please Leave Me Alone or Die.”
Let me also say that Mr. Hardy may be one of the most exciting actors working today. For example, think of him as the character Rodders in the messy yet interesting Sucker Punch (2008); playing Handsome Bob in the fun gangster film RocknRolla (2008); his immense contribution to Director Christopher Nolan’s exceptional Inception (2010); his quiet excellence in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011); and his incredible portrayal as the psychologically wounded Tommy Conlin in last year’s Warrior. This is a guy that we movie fans need to remember.
Howard Bondurant, played by Australian Jason Clarke, is second in charge as he spends a considerable amount of his time kicking the literal shit out of a transgressor while freely consuming a portion of the massive amount of booze that is always at hand. Shia LaBeouf is the younger brother, Jack Bondurant, a kid who is trying to learn his way in an illegal world while spending time courting the younger daughter of a local minister. For those of you who were ready to write Mr. LaBeouf off after being stuck in the Transformer films, you will cut him some slack after seeing him perform here.
The problem for all of the moonshiners was not the local police, as most of them were willing to look the other way for a modest handout. Disaster descends when an amoral, crushingly wicked police officer arrives on the scene from Chicago with the intention of getting the moonshiners to play ball his way or suffer dire consequences. Guy Pearce plays the role, and he once again demonstrates his incredible versatility.
While most of the Bondurants’ neighbors decide to cooperate with Pearce, our boys flatly refuse. While most of the students of history are casually aware of the bloody war that took place during Prohibition on the streets of Chicago, New York and elsewhere, what is largely overlooked was the equally violent battle going on in the Ozark Hills.
As the war unfolds into a series bloody conflicts, Mr. Hardy is not immune from the consequences. He takes just what he gives, resulting in gunshot wounds and a God-awful slit throat that nearly kills him. No, these southern hills were not the place where you would see Andy Griffith and his friends moving after leaving Mayberry.
In addition, one cannot overlook the great contributions from a number of other actors. Gary Oldman plays a Chicago mobster who becomes a friend of the Bondurants while basically considering kindness to be a four letter word. A young actor named Dane DeHaan plays a chemically gifted teenager named Cricket, a friend of Mr. LaBeouf’s. His demise is heartbreaking.
I should also add that this is not entirely a man’s film, as the splendid Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska make very visible contributions. I don’t consider any actress working today more sensually compelling than Ms. Chastain, whether here where she plays a woman of little virtue, or as the loveably confused and quite hysterical Celia Foote in The Help (2011).
Ms. Wasikowska plays the daughter of the pastor who Mr. LaBeouf is passionately pursuing, and she again makes a lot out of very little. If you don’t recall her, then see both her role as Alice in Tim Burton’s energized Alice in Wonderland (2010), and the daughter of gay parents played by Annette Benning and Julianne Moore in the very special The Kids Are All Right (2010).
Let me close by noting that Director John Hillcoat is again on top of his game as he tells a story centering on brutal antagonists. While his The Road (2009) was a movie that was difficult to watch, it did bring to life Cormac McCarthy’s horrifying novel about a man trying to find a place in the post-apocalyptic United States where his young son could lead a decent life apart from the cannibalistic, marauding hoards roaming our country.
Hillcoat’s The Proposition (2005) was a truly first-rate movie, again telling a story about the twisted occupants of an Australian rural area decades ago who are trying to survive the vicious tactics of those pursuing them, including the police. Mr. Hillcoat has a feel for this art form, and he is an immensely talented director who brings a uniquely nasty yet elegant world of profound violence to the screen.