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Review: Moonshine and Family Ties in ‘Lawless’

By on September 2, 2012
Shia LaBeouf and Mia Wasikowska in Lawless. Photo: Richard Foreman, Jr. © The Weinstein Company

Shia LaBeouf and Mia Wasikowska in Lawless. Photo: Richard Foreman, Jr. © The Weinstein Company

It may seem a little jarring to begin a movie with a scene of a tearful child trying to muster up the nerve to shoot a pig. Jarring, yes, but entirely appropriate for a movie like Lawless. This film is not afraid to shock its audience. In fact it seems to take pleasure in it. Based on Matt Bondurant’s novel, The Wettest County in the World, it is directed by John Hillcoat and written by Nick Cave.

The film tells the story of three loyal brothers, Howard (Jason Clarke), Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Jack (Shia LaBeouf) as they run a bootleg moonshine operation in Virginia. They are running a successful business until the snide, corrupt Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) arrives in town. When his demands to receive a share of the brothers’ profits are rejected, he launches a vicious war against the Bondurants.

An actor known for more cocky and high-energy roles, LaBeouf is impressive as the wildly insecure baby brother of the family. Even in his triumphant moments, Jack wears his heart on his sleeve and appears desperate for validation. Throughout the course of the film, he does his best to woo Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), the preacher’s daughter. Showing up to church drunk doesn’t exactly help his cause, but is fitting since he seems self-destructively determined to wind up in all kinds of trouble.

Often caught up in that very trouble is Forrest, who legend has it, cannot die. Hardy delivers a more subtle, but terrific and nuanced performance as the brother they all clearly look to for guidance. Given a dialogue filled mostly of grunts, he somehow manages to come across as incredibly intimidating and simultaneously vulnerable all at once. That vulnerability manifests itself primarily in his scenes with Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a city-girl he hires as a waitress. The two find a sensitive and very real romance amongst the chaos and distress of the story.

Tom Hardy as Forrest Bondurant. Photo: Richard Foreman, Jr. © The Weinstein Company

Gary Oldman has an extended cameo as city gangster Floyd Banner. After a gun-toting display of aggression, Banner winks at Jack, who seems to somewhat idolize the man. Banner’s character is only in the movie briefly, a reminder to Jack of a bigger life and power. Unsurprisingly, Oldman steals every one of his few scenes.

The two female leads are also not given much time to dazzle, but are alluring with the time they have. Maggie is particularly interesting as a dancer who has fled instability in Chicago for a simpler life (so much for that!).

It is a gritty story that moves along at a mostly quiet pace, which makes the abrupt, swift scenes of violence all the more unsettling. If they planned to emphasize the vicious, endless cycle that violence is, they were successful. Each side continues to strike back at the other with escalating rage, and those kinds of tense tales can only end one way.

Another theme present throughout the film is the strong bond of family. Even if it is foolish to the point of life-defying, the brothers display unwavering loyalty to each other. Deputy Rakes, who is persistently (and often repulsively) devoted to destroying the brothers, finds himself up against a very unyielding family.

If you’re in the mood for a fun summer flick, you will want to look elsewhere. However, Lawless is not a movie to be missed. It is a captivating character-study with a cast more hard-hitting than Forrest Bondurant’s brass knuckles.

Lawless is currently playing in theaters nationwide. Check out the trailer below.