This review comes to you a week late, as I did see the film opening weekend (last weekend – August 31), but better late than never, right? As with all things “based on a true story” you have to weed out the good and the bad and take what ever you are watching at face value. Lawless is a film, based on a true story, about the Bondurant brothers who run a bootlegging operation in southwest Virginia during the early depression era. It was a time when the prohibition drove people to do crazy things for a little bit of alcohol.
The film revolves around brothers Jack (Shia LaBeouf), Forrest (Tom Hardy), and Howard (Jason Clarke) who set up a bootlegging shop in Franklin county, Virginia. The basic premise is that the prohibition has everyone wanting a little taste of some home-cooked moonshine, even the local authorities, and the Bondurant brothers realize this. They develop, distribute, and control the flow of alcohol in the corner of three states but soon attract unwanted attention from a Special Deputy Charlie Rakes out of Chicago looking to shut down their operation for good. It’s your classic “good-bad guys against bad-good guy” story. You’ve also got the rival moonshine gangs – led by the always great Gary Oldman (in a too brief role) – that are out to cut into the Bondurant’s profits.
What really sets the movie apart from other historical dramas is that Lawless doesn’t hold back on the violence and grit. Every time Tom Hardy’s character is on the screen you either get that sense of dread – like something bad’s about to go down, or he’s about to whoop some serious ass. In the big scheme of things, Lawless is Shia LaBeouf’s movie but damnit if Tom Hardy doesn’t completely steal the show as Forrest Bondurant. Don’t get me wrong, LaBeouf acts his ass off in this film and the kid is seriously one of the best young actor’s in Hollywood right now, but Tom Hardy is just on another level. The way Hardy can expel emotion with just the expression in his eyes is something masterful. It’s the same way Hardy made you care about the character Charles Bronson in Bronson and Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. His portrayal as Bane is probably his best work but the character of Forrest Bondurant required Hardy to bottle up emotion with very few vocal traits (after all, the character is a bit off in the head). Hardy’s inadvertent connection with Jessica Chastain’s character, Maggie, is – at times – comical but surreal all at once. Forrest obviously doesn’t know how to talk to women, let alone enjoy their advances, but Maggie makes it easy for him and you can see by the way Hardy acts, that it’s such an uncomfortable situation for the character. Mastery on screen.
Now I do enjoy Guy Pearce as an actor, I really feel he’s one of the more underrated actors in Hollywood that usually delivers the goods in a role, but I felt his Charlie Rake character was too cartoonish. Yes, he was the villain and yes his character is meant to be a bit over the top I just think the part was written wrong. Rake is a guy who will stop at nothing to accomplish task and if that means killing some bootleggers, than so be it. Pearce plays the character that way when it’s time but in the scenes where Rake has to interact with another character without killing them, you’re left wondering why he was there in the first place. That’s not a good thing to have in your villain. I believe, and this is just me, that Rake’s character should have been written the same way No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) was. I menacing character who’s sole purpose throughout the movie was to play death. I felt the exact same way watching Pearce play Rake but I laughed at times because Rake was so over the top it was hard to take the character seriously at times. You never felt that way watching Bardem play Chigurh. It’s precisely the reason Bardem was nominated for an Academy Award for the role.
The film is not without its flaws as a whole however, the pacing is off at times and certain things go left unexplained for long periods of time that leave the audience trying to guess what just happened. Example, there is a part in the film where Forrest gets injured and winds up in the hospital but we never see how he got there and the explanation of how he ended up in the hospital bed goes too long unexplained. It’s a minor thing that bugged me but there were several other instances where the pacing was suspect and could have been done better. The ending was also a bit shallow in my opinion. I wanted a bigger payoff for LaBeouf’s character but it really never happened. Mia Wasikowska’s character was severely under-used and she’s too good of an actor to be used in a romantic sub-plot role.
No matter the films flaws, they don’t keep Lawless from being one of the best films I’ve seen this year.