As anyone who ever had to endure AP U.S. History knows, Prohibition was a brief period in post-WWI America when the sale, manufacture and transport of alcohol were illegal. What the textbooks probably didn’t elaborate on was how, well, badass the bootleggers who defied the law were. Enter “Lawless,” an adrenaline rush of a film inspired by the real-life Bondurant brothers, who made a killing in the illicit whiskey trade during the Great Depression.
In 1931 rural Virginia, Forrest, Howard and Jack Bondurant (played by Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke and Shia LaBeouf) do what all enterprising young men would to make living—distill whiskey, pay off local cops for protection and turn a nice profit selling the goods up and down the countryside. With family friend Cricket (Dane DeHaan, of “Chronicle”) crafting the brew to perfection, the family business runs like a well-oiled machine; that is until a special agent sent by Chicago’s district attorney rides into town hell-bent on stopping the flow of moonshine out of what has by now earned the moniker “the wettest county.”
Agent Rakes (Guy Pearce), however, proves much more sinister than just an officer on a power trip. Led by the Bondurants, the struggle to keep producing whiskey escalates into all-out warfare, and it won’t stop until one side backs down.
“Lawless” is easily director John Hillcoat’s most accessible film to date. Although often grim and violent, it still has moments of humor and levity, unlike Hillcoat’s previous two films, “The Proposition” and “The Road,” which a critic rightfully described as “misery on misery on misery.” This is not to say that the latest is by any means family-friendly — it’s still quite dark and graphic — but just not as bleak.
Using the historical novel “The Wettest County in the World,” written by Matt Bondurant (grandson of one of the famous brothers), as inspiration, screenwriter Nick Cave crafts a complex story of gangsters and corrupt lawmen almost as crooked as the crooks they make deals with. It’s almost too ambitious at times, with many promising characters receiving disappointingly little screen time. Gary Oldman’s brief cameo as fearsome gang boss Floyd Banner comes to mind, as do Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain as Jack and Forrest’s respective latent love interests.
Instead the film is anchored by the bond between the Bondurant brothers and rides on their performances and fraternal chemistry. Hardy, as the clan’s de facto ringleader, is all cool swag as usual, while Clarke is the brawny Howard who boozes by day and provides the muscle for the operation by night. LaBeouf is pleasantly sympathetic as the runt of the family trying to prove his toughness to his older brothers as much as to himself; in other words, encouraging proof that the actor has a shot at a successful post-Transformers career. Opposite the Bondurants, Pearce is absolutely terrifying as the sleazy, almost maniacal agent.
So while “Lawless” doesn’t quite push any boundaries and probably won’t spur any deep discussions afterward, it will undoubtedly be a fun, action-packed alternative for those burnt out on superheroes and CGI extravaganzas to close out summer movie season with panache.
Catch “Lawless” in theaters this August.