Lawless is loosely based on historical novel The Wettest Country In the World and follows the fortunes of the Bondurant brothers in rural Illinois during the 1920s Prohibition. At nearly two hours long, this organised crime story naturally invites comparison with greats such as The Godfather trilogy. However, Lawless is more obviously similar to The Untouchables; both films are set against the backdrop of outlawed alcohol in and around Chicago and both plots concern crusading authority figures bent on upsetting the status quo. But there the comparisons must end. Lawless makes no bones about the fact that it is the Bondurants who are the heroes, moonshiners completing the supply chain between illegal countryside distilleries and organised crime in Chicago. Howard Brondurant played by Tom Hardy is the undisputed leader of the clan, supported by brothers Jack and Howard played by Shia LeBeouf and Jason Clarke respectively. They are pitted against Guy Pierce's Charlie Rakes who has been sent by the district attorney in Chicago to enforce a crackdown.
While this subtext of good ol' boys up against overzealous law enforcement may sound clichéd (Dukes of Hazzard, anyone?), Lawless is in fact quite original in many ways. For a start, it eschews the more urban backdrop of most crime movies so that we get an insight into a true cottage industry at work; whole hillsides are lit up at night as the distilleries make their illegal brew. Production is tolerated because it allows for a happy equilibrium between the local law, who just want peace, and the moonshiners, who just want to make a profit. But the peace is shattered when Rakes, surely one of cinema's most reprehensible screen villains, enters the scene. An immaculately pruned dandy, he reminds us of Frank Nitty from The Untouchables, only this version is supposedly on the 'good' side. Insulting to the locals, disdainful of rural life, abusive to women, disrespectful of the local sheriff, unlawfully violent and psychopathic, it's not long before we are jumping out of our seats willing on his demise. It is this portrayal of the ghastly Rakes which surely confirms Pierce's status as the consummate character actor.
This is not to say that the other performances are less worthy. Tom Hardy underplays well the man of few words that is his character Forrest while Shia LeBeouf is interesting as his brother; emerging from the shadows of Transformers, he is gaining the confidence to tackle weightier roles like Wall Street 2 and now Lawless. LeBeouf is undoubtedly at his best when playing wide-eyed bewilderment and this energy transfers well to wooing a local girl too. But it is Hardy's passivity that is probably better suited to the scenes where violence and revenge are the overriding themes. The performances are rounded out by Dane DeHaan playing Cricket, Jack's side-kick who conveys utterly his vulnerability in a harrowing scene with Rakes. Love interest is served by Jessica Chastain who plays Maggie. Time magazine recently featured her as one of the "100 most influential people in the world" and one film critic labelled her "one of the finest actors of her generation". To say expectations were high would therefore be an understatement but thankfully they were justified when her character audaciously seduces Forrest in one of the film's most memorable scenes.
So how does Lawless measure up overall? Firstly, we should remember that it's against very tough competition in its genre. The Godfather trilogy and The Untouchables have already been mentioned while its more contemporary rivals include Public Enemies with Johnny Depp, set in the same era. My own view is that Lawless does a good job of holding its own in this exalted company. Critics have highlighted a certain soullessness and the fact that the violence is often played out in a vacuum. It is true that some of it can lack context, for example the scene where a Chicago crime boss suitably played by Gary Oldman randomly punishes one of his lackeys with a spade (needless to say he wasn't assigning him gardening duties). However, these momentary lapses are more than made up for in the final, climactic shootout. This scene is choreographed and conceived superbly, but it's rendered even more powerful by its blood-soaked message, that laws are only legitimate if they have the consent of the people who are expected to observe them. Without this, the film tells us, enforcement can legitimately be resisted and, if that enforcement is brutal and indiscriminate, then it should be resisted with extreme violence. Based on what happens in the film most viewers will sympathise with this viewpoint even if they are slightly uncomfortable with the moral ambiguity of violent moonshiners doing the resisting. But gangster flicks have had us rooting for the 'baddies' before; Ray Liotta's Henry Hill in Goodfellas, Al Pacino's Tony Montana in Scarface (before he completely loses it) and Robert de Niro's Neil McCauley in Heat are just a few examples. That such comparisons can be made at all surely bodes well for Lawless's legacy in the annals of crime cinema; its moral message, confounding of audience expectations and genuine acting highlights make it a vital watch.
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Please note this is a region 2 DVD and will require a region 2 or region free DVD player in order to play. John Hillcoat (The Road) directs this crime thriller set in rural Virginia in the early 1930s, adapted by musician-screenwriter Nick Cave from the biographical novel by Matt Bondurant, the grandson of one of the main characters. Brothers Jack and Forrest Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf and Tom Hardy) set up as bootleggers, but soon find themselves under threat from the authorities who want a cut of their profits in the form of 'security money'. A vicious turf war ensues as the brothers fight tooth and nail to retain their hard-won livelihood. The supporting cast includes Mia Wasikowska, Gary Oldman, Guy Pearce, Noah Taylor and Jessica Chastain. Actors: Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Gary Oldman, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain Directors: John Hillcoat Writers: John Hillcoat Language: English Number of discs: 1
John Hillcoat ('The Road') directs this crime thriller set in rural Virginia in the early 1930s, adapted by musician-screenwriter Nick Cave from the biographical novel by Matt Bondurant, the grandson of one of the main characters. Brothers Jack and Forrest Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf and Tom Hardy) set up as bootleggers, but soon find themselves under threat from the authorities who want a cut of their profits in the form of 'security money'. A vicious turf war ensues as the brothers fight tooth and nail to retain their hard-won livelihood. The supporting cast includes Mia Wasikowska, Gary Oldman, Guy Pearce, Noah Taylor and Jessica Chastain.