Director: John Hillcoat
Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Gary Oldman and Noah Taylor
Distributor: Roadshow Films
Runtime: 116 mins. Reviewed in Oct 2012
| JustWatch |
Rating notes: strong bloody violence

The original title, from the book by one of the descendants of the three brothers, Bondurant, was ‘The Wettest Country in the World’, a story about Prohibition days and moonshine smuggling. However, after watching the film, Lawless does seem a much more appropriate title.

While there have been films about moonshine in the 1920s and 1930s, the emphasis on the city gangsters or the outlaws who drove around the US robbing banks has been a bigger staple of crime thrillers about the period. However, while there is reference to Al Capone, this is a story of the Virginia mountains and a family (based on a true story) that brewed, delivered and sold around the county (with a wink from some of the police).

We are introduced to the Bondurant brothers as boys, with Jack, the youngest, unable to shoot a pig on the farm. The oldest boy, Howard, drinks a lot but is under the sway of the middle brother, Forest, who had harsh experiences fighting in World War I. The action of the film takes place in 1930 and stays in the small town, in the brothers’ home, on the roads and local bridges and at the still. Chicago takes an interest and some gangsters come down to throw their weight around but to buy from the brothers.

But, the law is interested. The law is embodied by one of the most detestable agents we have seen on screen, in demonically ruthless and relentless pursuit of the brothers. He is a fashion dandy with perfume, bow tie and suit, polished black hair, parted in the middle – and no eyebrows. He can beat people brutally. He resents any implications when he is referred to as a nance. He orders attacks on stills but has little personal loyalty from the police and his deputies. In many ways he steals the show in Guy Pearce’s near or over the top performance.

While Shia LaBoeuf has the main role as Jack, somewhat timid, brutally beaten, wanting to be a someone in the business, meanwhile attracted to the daughter of a pastor in charge of a closed and traditional community, it is Tom Hardy as Forest who is more interesting. Hardy has proven himself in the last five years to be a versatile actor (and handy with American accents). He is quiet but what one might call indomitable, especially when slashed, beaten and shot so often. Jason Clarke is Howard.

There are only two main women in the film, Jessica Chastain as a dancer who has fled from Chicago, and Mia Wasikowska as the pastor’s daughter. They have limited screen time but do establish their characters strongly. Gary Oldman has some scenes as the gangster from Chicago.

Filmed in Georgia, the film looks good. The cast is solid. The screenplay, by Nick Cave (who also wrote the score, as he did with John Hillcoat’s The Proposition) is stronger on characters than offering a complex plot.

The Bondurant brothers were not exactly lawless. They lived outside the law. Their vicious pursuer is much more lawless, exploiting the law on his side. There is a quiet epilogue which reminds us that Prohibition was repealed and so many of the bootleggers settled down to respectability by the time that World War II broke out, another era.

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