Friday, September 07, 2012

'Lawless' is a violent, well acted drama

The generically named "Lawless" is an imperfect, but compelling prohibition-era drama about moonshiners, gangsters and a crooked federal agent that is graphically violent and exceptionally well acted.

Based on the semi-factual novel "The Wettest County in the World" — a much better name — the film is a character study of the Bondurant brothers, who are the most successful moonshiners in Franklin county, Virginia.

Forrest (Tom Hardy), the oldest, is the leader and a man who local myth claims to be immortal as he has defied death on numerous occasions. The middle brother, Howard (Jason Clarke), is Forrest's right-hand man and enforcer. Jack (Shia LaBeouf) is the runt of the family and is only allowed to be the driver, although he is hungry for more.

The trio run a gas station and diner as the front for their moonshining operation. Into their world enters Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a beautiful Chicago woman on the run from the treachery of the city, who accepts a waitress job.

Their simple life is shaken when a special agent (Guy Pearce) comes to town looking to shut down all moonshining. While others in the county fall in line, the Bondurant boys refuse leading to several bursts of brutal violence.

Jack takes it upon himself to expand business to Chicago and sell to gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman). After an initial uncertain confrontation between Jack and Floyd this subplot doesn't really go anywhere. This aspect of the plot simply exists to provide the brothers with wealth. Oldman is fantastic playing a 1930s-era gangster, but his role is not much larger than a cameo. There is a lot more that could've been explored here.

The real antagonist of the film is Pearce's special agent. On the surface he is a prim and mannered man, but this merely hides a slimy, cruel and sadistic nature. Pearce gives a performance that is genuinely disturbing and makes your skin crawl.

The Bondurants are able to evade Pearce for a time, but Jack, with his new found wealth, brings attention to himself by buying fancy new clothes and cars and courting the preacher's daughter (Mia Wasikowska).

LaBeouf's Jack is essentially the film's main character. He provides the film's narration and has the central story arc. LaBeouf, once a critical darling before "The Transformers" series and his tabloid antics, is getting largely dismissed in most reviews of this film.

As an actor, LaBeouf's range is still limited, but this sort of material suits him far better than big-budget action. He is not expected to be a tough guy in this film. He is actually a rather pathetic weakling who must grow into the violent confrontation that marks the climax of the film. LaBeouf shows this growth admirably and nicely carries the film.

Although LaBeouf is good, it is Hardy that makes the stronger impression. He makes Forrest a quiet, stoic man who believes his own myth. Hardy gives Forrest a deep, growl of a voice that at times is difficult to decipher, but perhaps that is the point. Forrest is meant to be enigmatic. He is a man of few words, but every one counts.

Hardy develops an intriguing relationship with Chastain. They don't say much to each other, but in glances and body language they create a palpable chemistry. Chastain breathes life into a character that could be standard. Both Hardy and Chastain feel like real people rather than the cliches they may have been in lesser actors' hands.

Clarke, as the third brother, isn't given much to do. He has a distinct, memorable screen presence, but his character is underdeveloped and is just there to throw punches and shoot guns.

Directed by John Hillcoat from a screenplay by rocker Nick Cave, the film is deliberately paced and with beautiful, atmospheric photography by cinematographer BenoƮt Delhomme. Most scenes are of quiet conversation. Even the more intense dialogue exchanges aren't shouting matches. This makes the violence, which often comes seemingly out of nowhere, all the more striking.

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