If you have to have one reason to see Lawless, John Hillcoat‘s violent and grimy bootlegging film set in Depression- and Prohibition-era 1930s rural Virginia, make that Tom Hardy. Coming off The Dark Knight Rises, you might consider his role here — as the hulking and seemingly “invincible” Forrest Bondurant, who conveys more with his imposing physicality that with words — a slight improvement on the masked terrorist Bane that he played in the July superhero blockbuster and nothing much more. That would be a mistake, certainly, as what makes Hardy a riveting, spectacular and natural screen presence in Lawless is the surprisingly delicate, finely perfected subtleties that he brings to his character, what he conveys with a single glance from his eyes, or even unintelligiblely clumsy mumbling (which he does a lot in the marked presence of runaway showgirl Maggie, played by Jessica Chastain in all her fragile yet enduringly strong pale beauty). This has probably been said before, but it deserves to be said again — Tom Hardy is a mighty fine actor and will be nominated for an Oscar one of these days.
Will Lawless be the film that carries him, and perhaps itself, to glory? Probably not, though it does succeeds at being a generally well-made, uncompromising, and gripping gangster tale. Loosely based on Matt Bondurant‘s fictionalized biography of his infamous family, The Wettest County in the World, this film is about the Bondurant brothers, which include Forrest, older brother Howard (Jason Clarke, who plays well a swilling brute with a spine-chilling animalistic roar which he uses once to great effect), and the younger, underapprecciated and frustated Jack (Shia LaBoeuf, whose overly apparent earnestness and eagerness to make us forget his previous work overspills onto the screen, especially as he is given the main role). They are local legends, because they have, combined, survived the war and the plague that killed their parents.
But they also make very good moonshine, which prompts a corrupt Commonwealth Attorney to send over from gangster-ridden Chicago Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce, effectively oozing evilness but with no great purpose) to get a cut of the Bondurant brothers’ profits. Rakes is of the unpleasant sort, a snakelike sadistic and viciously brutal man who shaves his eyebrows, has an odd high-pitched laugh, and wears a fancy suit complete with white kid gloves. In short, the personification of total villainy. After Rakes sneers at the uncivilized backwater hicks, Forrest more than returns the open contempt at having to pay anyone — “We don’t bow down to nobody,” he reminds Jack — and, with the local intimidated police stuck somewhere in the middle, war begins, slowly building to an explosive boiling point and a decently satisfying finale.
Gary Oldman, great as always, is awfully underused as a Tommy gun-wielding mobster, while Mia Wasikoswka, along with Chastain, provides some of the film’s softer moments as a strict preacher’s daughter brimming with sweetness at the smitten Jack.
The brutally bloody and hard-hitting spates of violence that occur regularly in Lawless bring to mind some of the more controversial aspects of Bonnie and Clyde, albeit with a little more unpleasant gore brought on by good ol’ fashioned knives and knuckledusters. But the overall visuals were underwhelming. I have to bring to mind also The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, another film full of dirty, crude men based on real-life legends doing uncivilized things in a rural setting — but apart from being elegantly elegiac and poised, the stylized visuals were pleasing and accentuted the natural beauty of the raw landscape. Lawless, while having excellent production design and costumes to fit the drab period, isn’t a particulary pretty movie to watch. But it gets the job done, both aesthetically and storywise. [B+]
The Weinstein Co.’s Lawless is now playing in theaters everywhere.