Lawless is a Prohibition-era gangster film directed by John Hillcoat from a screenplay by Nick Cave. It is based on the true story of the Bondurant brothers who distilled and sold moonshine in Franklin County, Virginia and stars Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowsa, Gary Oldman and Guy Pearce.
LaBeouf plays the youngest brother Jack and the film’s narrator. The story follows his attempts at stepping up and becoming the equals of his brothers Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) who take care of all aspects of the production and distribution of their product. Things become complicated when the perfumed Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) arrives from Chicago looking for bribes. When Forrest refuses Rakes uses every dirty trick he knows to remove the Bondurants from the scene.
The film is adapted from a novel by Jack Bondurant’s grandson Matt, The Wettest County in the World which may be why the film feels like a fairytale at times. The sides of good and evil are clearly defined with Guy Pearce looking like a serpent that slithered out from under a rock for the entire film. He is the embodiment of all the terrible things that happen to the Bondurants but just like a fairytale villain he has no credible motives to be quite so obsessed with being bad.
Nonetheless he is a great source of tension as we never know exactly what he’s going to do in any particular scene. The “Invincible” Forrest Bondurant is the safest bet in the film for the audience’s sympathies. He is a violent character but when a film is this mired in gore it’s easy to forgive especially considering Charlie Rakes is tailor-made for the audience to want to see him knifed.
Gary Oldman makes a cameo as big-time gangster Floyd Banner, and he is characteristically scene-stealing, which makes it disappointing that he plays such a small role in the film. Along with Hardy and Pearce he dominates when he is on-screen so it is a letdown that he never appears in the same scene with these characters.
Lawless is an enjoyable watch but the characters (especially the women) feel like formulas rather than real human beings. At times it feels like a fantasy film in its romanticised view of an age when you knew who you could trust and you could solve all your problems with a gun.