(by Dustin Putman
In spite of—or maybe in light of—its bland theatrical trailer and a Depression-era story that sounds overly familiar at first sight, "Lawless" exceeds all expectations. With bad memories of everything from 1998's "The Newton Boys" to 2001's "American Outlaws," which made a specific time and place of the past look like dress rehearsal, here is a legitimate, intoxicating drama with just enough visual sweep to encapsulate its setting and just enough intimacy to give its characters the dimension and life they demand. Written by musician Nick Cave and directed by John Hillcoat (2009's "The Road") with an enthralling mixture of lyricism and curdled blood, the film is at once heartfelt and wrenching, quietly ominous and literally cutthroat, a western-cum-gangster-saga in a vein both classic and modern. Filled top to bottom with the highest of talent in front of the camera and behind the scenes, it's good enough to even make the viewer forget how colorless its renamed title is (it's based on the best-selling novel "The Wettest County in the World" by Matt Bondurant). Article continues below
Franklin County, Virginia, 1931. With Prohibition coming to an end but still weighing down on the country, three brothers - Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke), and Jack (Shia LaBeouf) - have become prime bootleggers in the area, making their moonshine at a top-secret distillery off their property and selling it around town for tidy prices. The authorities, led by the dapper, devious Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), want in on a piece of their profits. When the siblings bulk at giving up what's rightfully theirs, an all-out war is sparked, at first vicious and silent and then deadly. As innocents are forced into Rakes' dangerous sights - new barmaid Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a transplant from Chicago looking for a slower pace; preacher's daughter Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), whom Jack has his eyes on; and hard-working, disabled friend and helper Cricket (Dane DeHaan) - the brothers' fight becomes exceedingly personal.
"Lawless" interweaves a human story with that of a compelling bygone age. Both, at least in part, are historically true. As director John Hillcoat sees Franklin County, its deceptive sleepiness is but a light blanket over the stark danger hiding around every corner. In a town where a trip to the market can get you killed, caught in the crosshairs of mobster Floyd Banner's (Gary Oldman) gun, the Bondurant brothers have thus far evaded much notice while making money off of catering to the in-demand alcohol market. They're not hurting anyone - they know how to mind their own business - but once Special Agent Charlie Rakes catches wind of their operation, he and his cronies quickly propel their lives toward fight-or-flight acts of survival. As Rakes, Guy Pearce (2012's "Lockout") vanishes within a character as maniacally spiteful as he is uncontrollably watchable, the deep, scalp-heavy part in his oiled hair an unforgettable physical calling card. In the annals of onscreen villains, he just might be in the top echelon. By the end, the audience has to practically hold themselves down, lest they jump clear through the screen and kill Rakes with their own hands. Pearce is that good.
Technical specs are crucial, melding interchangeably and adding to the substance of story and character. The soundtrack featuring Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, and a Velvet Underground cover of "White Light/White Heat," much of it country and bluegrass, some of it gloriously anachronistic (and who really cares?), only adds to the story's sense of currency, helping to bridge the gap between viewers and their respective identifying of protagonists from a largely different generation. The rural scenery and surrounding nature, the latter changing vividly with the seasons, is evocatively photographed by Benoit Delhomme (2011's "One Day") as if he's time-traveled back eighty years to capture the world in as plausible a manner as possible. Art direction by Gershon Ginsburg (2002's "The Sweetest Thing") is impeccable, too, while the varied costume designs by Margot Wilson (2002's "Ghost Ship") help to bring a certain individuality and punctuation to its ensemble. And then there's the no-nonsense editing by Dylan Tichenor (2010's "The Town"), methodical but commanding, taking the time to focus on the people so that when they're met with violence - as when Jack is brutally beat up on his front lawn, or when Forrest comes close to death at the end of a knife one still, snowy night - it stings all the more.
Now in his mid-twenties and growing convincingly into adult roles, Shia LaBeouf (2011's "Transformers: Dark of the Moon") has never been better than he is as Jack Bondurant. The youngest and perhaps most foolhardy brother, he is also the glue that seems to keep his siblings together, and LaBeouf holds the screen with a magnetism he's rarely been given the chance to show off in past parts. His gentle romance with Bertha, a plain-Jane just waiting to blossom, is effectively low-key, and LaBeouf's chemistry with Mia Wasikowska (2011's "Jane Eyre") is substantial. A scene where Jack surprises Bertha with a new dress - something she wouldn't dare wear in front of her preacher father - is enough to transfix before taking a sharp and threatening turn sure to give some viewers plenty to bite their nails about. As Forrest, a man of few words but legitimate force, Tom Hardy (2012's "The Dark Knight Rises") is every bit as impressive as LaBeouf, particularly when one considers how very different all of Hardy's roles have been over the last twelve months. Compare him here to bad-guy Bane in "The Dark Knight Rises," to his work as a romantic lead in 2012's "This Means War," to his physically demanding turn in 2011's otherwise cornball "Warrior," and it's proof enough that Hardy is a thespian of uncommon power and diversity.
As steadfast eldest brother Howard, Jason Clarke (2009's "Public Enemies") has the least to do. There is nothing at all wrong with the actor's work, but, for whatever reason, the script places him more in the background, an observer who only comes into his own in the third act. As hefty and palpable a bond as the three brothers are depicted as having, the less-developed treatment of Howard is possibly the film's weakest link. In a cast that is superlative through and through, Jessica Chastain (2011's "Take Shelter") bewitches, then thoroughly touches as barmaid Maggie, who shields a tragic secret as a means of retaining her dignity in Forrest's eyes. Chastain is the kind of expressive actress whose strength comes in her ability to say so much without having to say anything at all, and it is this special gift that serves her well as Maggie. Dane DeHaan (2012's "Chronicle") underplays Cricket to expert effect, never reliant on a lot of histrionics and clichés to bring his innocent and sweetly naïve role to life. And finally, Gary Oldman (2010's "The Book of Eli") cements a lasting impact with only ten minutes or so of screen time, making irascible, unsympathetic gangster Floyd Banner his own in a specific, offbeat way few performers could.
"Lawless" bubbles with mounting tension before reaching a rightful crescendo, the climactic confrontation between the Bondurant brothers and the despicable Charlie Rakes a long time coming as director John Hillcoat delivers a cathartic collision of heightened emotions and primal bloodlust. Culminating in the mouth of a shadowy wood-covered bridge, it's a set-piece that feels like a new classic cinema moment even as it is being watched, and how often can one say that during most recent studio releases? If "Lawless" works as drama, as action-thriller, and as period potboiler, it is the unexpectedly tender, finally devastating epilogue that reveals the truth depths of this tale's aim. Reminding a little of the ending of 2010's "True Grit" while going in its own direction, the concluding narration, in tandem with the unassumingly haunting mise en scene, ponders nothing less than the unpredictable resourcefulness and fragility of the human body and the sheer wonder of life itself. This might sound a bit haughty for what's come before, but it's not at all, acting as a natural, thoughtful extension of the experiences and relationships that have formed over the past couple hours. Arriving right at the tail-end of August, "Lawless" shouldn't dare be overlooked. It is the ideal capper on the summer movie season, yes, but also an early end-of-the-year awards contender.