In the hills of Franklin County, Virginia during Prohibition, a trio of brothers distill moonshine in the woods and smuggle it into the big city and sell it to organized crime. When a new special deputy is appointed for the area, things begin to get heated. Violence and drama ensue as the brothers struggle against the law and try to romance the ladies, all in the course of trying to build their white lightning empire.
It’s a pretty basic story, but all of the performers do a pretty admirable job, and the combination of period piece and gangster element is always a plus in my book. “Lawless” is no threat to make my Top Ten this year, by any means, but it did wind up a surprisingly entertaining time at the movies for me.
“Lawless” is the story of the Bondurant brothers. Apparently, it has some basis in fact. It’s based on a 2008 novel (“The Wettest County in the World”) about the author’s grandfather and great-uncles who were actual Prohibition-era bootleggers.
Jack (Shia LaBeouf), Forrest (Tom Hardy), and Howard (Jason Clarke) run a still or two in the hills and sell jars and crates of jars to locals from the back of their pick-up truck. They’re relatively small time, in fact, everyone in the county seems to be distilling. They all get along well with the local law, who are happy to look the other way. Forrest is the leader of the brothers. He’s strong and sullen, and such an intimidating force that no one wants to cross him. Howard is a bit of a crazy, loose cannon, while Jack is the runt of the litter, but smart, and ambitious. The trio is backed by Cricket Pane (Dane DeHaan), who suffered rickets as a child and is a bit gimpy as a result, but he’s a whiz with machinery. He’s able to give the Bondurants an edge in the business by crafting them advanced stills and souping up their car engines.
When a slick, sadistic new special deputy is appointed for the area (Guy Pearce), the Bondurants are alone amongst the county’s moonshiners in refusing to pay the extortion money he demands. This leads the deputy to flex his muscle, causing all sorts of harm to the trio and the ones they love. In a moment of retaliatory anger, Jack loads up an entire truck full of their top-notch stuff and drives into the city to a known killer and gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman). His bravery almost gets him killed, but results ultimately in a huge score and a new connection that takes the Bondurant moonshining operation to an entirely new level.
War with the law looms.
Threatening to get caught in the crossfire are the two romantic interests for the brothers; a stripper who moved to the country in order to get away from her former life (Jessica Chastain) and a preacher’s daughter (Mia Wasikowska). Forrest begins to get protective of the ex-showgirl after she takes a job at the family saloon, and Jack pursues his girl right into church. Neither are the most intriguing romances you’ll ever see, and there may be times when I questioned each of them, but they’re not the worst diversions from the main story I’ve ever seen or anything, either.
The performances across the board here are solid, if unspectacular. I’ll call out Guy Pearce for special mention, as, even if he didn’t do anything particularly special acting-wise, his character is a memorable one, with his plucked eyebrows, greased back hair and fancy suits. I also have to give some credit to Shia LaBeouf here. This was the first role of his I’ve ever caught where I wasn’t actively hating on him. He was pretty decent. Hardy fans will be relatively pleased. He’s got more to offer then this… the character spends the entire movie with a scowl on his face, but still, Hardy plays big and burly better than anyone out there. Chastain and Wasikowska each bring more to the roles than the script gives them. They’re both talented, and though this wont be either of their best roles, they certainly didn’t disgrace themselves or let their fans down.
Oldman’s role is barely more than a cameo.
The story they all come together to put on for us is a fun one. It has shades of all kinds of gangster movies we’ve seen before, certainly. But the stills in the hills element is certainly a new one to me, and that was enough to provide a refreshing twist. The production does a good job of recreating the look and feel of the “sticks” of the 1920s. The period piece factor is working in the movie’s favor, as is the natural beauty of the setting. Once you’re there, an extended game of cobs and robbers unfolds, with lots of mob movie style beatings, shootouts, messages via body parts, etc. It all builds to a worthy, cathartic final confrontation.
Combined with the fact that you have such a loaded ensemble cast, “Lawless” makes for a solidly entertaining, albeit not overly remarkable movie