During the Prohibition Era, drinking didn’t diminish; it became more chic. While gangsters and molls kicked their heels up at speakeasies in Chicago, the Bondurant brothers were taking advantage of a new cottage industry, cooking up mountain dew in homemade stills tucked away in the hills of Virginia.
Feared and respected at home in Franklin County, the Bondurants were imagined immortal. A world war, Spanish flu, knives and bullets — nothing seemed to slow down these moonshiners. Oldest brother Howard (Jason Clarke: Texas Killing Fields) is the drunken enforcer of the clan. Middle brother Forrest (Tom Hardy: The Dark Knight Rises) runs the business and, with some well-concealed brass knuckles, makes sure his family stays feared and respected.
Then there’s Jack (Shia LaBeouf: Transformers), the black sheep of the manly Bondurants. Every family has one: Jack’s not as vicious as Howard, nor as respected as Forrest, but he desperately wants to capitalize on the Bondurant mystique. While his brothers spend their days drinking, grunting, bashing skulls and bootlegging, Jack dreams of ascending his backwoods upbringing and becoming a nattily dressed gangster, like the ones he reads about in the newspapers. He’s a pretender to the throne, but the other boys don’t have the heart to kick him out of the family business.
When the law decides to make a profit from the moonshine industry, they send sadistic dandy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce: Prometheus) to collect. Calling the Virginians “hicks” and “hillbillies,” Rakes soon runs afoul of the prideful Forest, who refuses to pay off a man, even one with a badge and a taste for blood. Soon war erupts between the Bondurants and the law, as Rakes means to test the brothers’ rumored immortality.
Based on the true tale of three brothers who fought the law and created a legend, Lawless is a great miniseries condensed into a mediocre feature film. Director John Hillcoat (The Road) creates a beautiful film that unfortunately has too much source material. As a result, characters like Rakes and gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman: The Dark Knight Rises) get a few showy scenes but leave the audience craving more information. For those truly invested, purchase Matt Bondurant’s (grandson of Jack) book The Wettest County, for a fuller look at the men and the times.
The biggest problem with Lawless is LaBeouf, who has the thankless job of trying to carry a movie in which he is the least interesting character. Lawless is filled with gangsters, strong silent types and showgirls with secrets. Yet it inexplicably focuses on the bratty Bondurant who wants to play gangster but can’t shoot, punch or earn any respect.
Perhaps to make up for Jack’s rather pathetic characterization, LaBeouf tries to make his performance big and attention-getting. He bugs out his eyes, twitches his mouth and flails at every opportunity. Instead of making Jack dramatic, these larger-than-life ticks make Jack seem like he would be more comfortable in a remedial acting class rather than running a backwoods still.
The film, however, is saved by a supporting cast of excellent actors. Hardy and Clarke are fascinating as the infinitely more interesting members of the Bondurant brood. Hardy channels Marlon Brando in his performance, making Forrest so manly that he communicates primarily through grunts and steely looks. Clarke is nearly feral, spending much of the movie coiled and ready for violence.
As a woman of mystery who joins the boys in brewing, Jessica Chastain is a subtle and strong female presence in this masculine movie. Oozing Brylcream from every pore, Pearce makes his foppish role threatening with bursts of surprising violence that mar his stylish veneer.
Lawless is a flawed but enjoyable look at the ugly side of Prohibition and the fascinating men who made bootlegging their business. Still, it might be worthwhile to smuggle a flask into the theatre. A sip every time LaBeouf opens his mouth might elevate this film from good to great.