There is always that one film every year. When you see it, you know it. It may not be a film that you were even excited to see nor had any great expectations for it. When the end credits start to roll, you think, “That was amazing” or whatever your equivalent might be. The year is not even over yet and I can say that film for me this year is Lawless.
Lawless is rooted in a true story. Author Matt Bondurant wrote The Wettest County in the World about his grandfather and his two great-uncles and their exploits in the illegal moonshine business during Prohibition in Franklin County, Virginia. This is the backcountry where men have their own laws, and the law ignores what is going on in their jurisdiction. Loyalty and family are what is important. Things change quickly when Special Deputy Charlie Rakes arrives on the scene and throws a kink in the local moonshine business. He takes a special interest in the Bondurant boys, and the Bondurant boys will not back down or give in.
Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, and Jason Clark play respectively Jack, Forrest, and Howard Bondurant. These three brothers run one of the most profitable moonshine businesses in Franklin County. Each brother has his own role in the business. Forrest is the boss. Howard is the muscle and security. Jack is the lackey, running errands and small tasks for the family. He is trying to prove his worth to his brothers, but does not have the stomach or strength for some things his brothers expect him to do.
The performances given by each actor in Lawless are spectacular. Each actor seemed to absorb all the complexities and emotions that each role required. I have not seen such tour-de-force acting on a large scale such as this in a very long time. Those performances that clearly stand out in Lawless are those from Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, and Guy Pearce.
Shia LaBeouf captures the character of Jack Bondurant perfectly. He provides most of the comedic relief due to Jack’s incessant pursuit of money, glory, and local girl Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska). He also shows Jack’s weakness and vulnerability when he is put in a situation that compromises the tough façade he tries to put up for those around him. While Shia LaBeouf has the most screen time of all the actors, he is by no means the sole focus of the film.
Tom Hardy should be on everyone’s radar by now. He is clearly one of the most gifted actors, and his performance as Forrest Bondurant will once again put him in the spotlight. Tom Hardy’s Forrest has a quiet strength, one that is not tested or even needs a loud voice to communicate the intensity of his words. He is clearly the boss and will bow to no one. This becomes clear from the first few minutes he is on screen. Forrest’s wardrobe betrays his true self. The hat and the cardigan sweater are more reminiscent of somebody’s grandfather. It is the way Tom Hardy speaks and carries himself that makes Forrest who he needs to be. There is also a quietness in the strength that draws newcomer Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain) to him and Forrest to her. The relationship between Maggie and Forrest is late blooming but burns deep.
Guy Pearce has been transforming himself physically for roles recently (Prometheus), and Lawless’ Charlie Rakes is another. When Guy Pearce steps out of the car at the Bondurant place as Charlie Rakes, he is disguised quite well behind the demeanor, look, and clearly evident eccentricities. Part way through the film, it occurred to me that Charlie has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) as he is not a fan of touching people or things not belonging to him. His clothes, hair, pale complexion, and eyebrows (or lack thereof) all add up to OCD. Charlie is a really evil character, hell bent on getting those Bondurants by any means possible. This guy is pretty despicable and may give you the heeby-geebees or whatever you want to call them when he comes on screen.
Even with great acting, this is still a backcountry gangster film. Parts of Lawless are extremely bloody, bordering on gory. There is violence galore whether by shovel, scapel, knife, gun, or bare fists (maybe with some brass knuckles). This is not a Quentin Tarantino film, but I would put Lawless somewhere between Inglourious Basterds and your average violent R rated film. Those who are a little squeamish may want to avert their eyes during certain parts.
What made this film for me are the characters and the story. The trio of brothers against the world is reminiscent of the Ludlow brothers in Legends of the Fall. The story arc of each brother is very different, and the films cover different lengths of time. Yet the relationship between the brothers is the same. It is a bond that cannot be broken no matter what happens or what they do to each other.
Lawless is not a film that is to be missed or added to your Netflix queue. See it on the big screen. This is a bona fide masterpiece that has everything going for it. It took a long time for this story to even reach the filming stage, and I am glad that screenwriter Nick Cave and director John Hillcoat knew the potential and stuck with it. If this film, its actors, or any element of it does not receive some heavy Academy Award recognition, I will be shocked and dismayed once again. Lawless has the makings of a classic film that will stand the test of time and still be remembered.
I give Lawless 5 “Ball Glass Jars” out of 5.
by Sarah Ksiazek