Upon leaving a cinema I often find that the character I related to the most tends to be the one who I embody whilst strolling home. In the case of Lawless, it was unquestionably Forrest Bondurant, portrayed by the stoically invincible Tom Hardy. As Jack, Shia LaBeouf presents his most convincing character depiction since Louis Stevens in the popular children’s television show Even Stevens. Add to this a reliable Jason Clarke as Howard and you have the three Bondurants, the prohibition-defying, bootlegging brothers who successfully contravened the anti-liquor legislation in Franklin County, Virginia during the early part of the nineteenth century.
Whilst running their illegal activities via a legitimate bar, the brothers are faced with an antagonist in the form of the corrupt Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce). Pearce is the wildcard of the film; his uncharacteristic interpretation of Rakes is so utterly repellent that it’s astonishing the film almost goes overboard on making him dislikable. Rakes’ abhorrent actions aside, Pearce conveys a studied, vile physicality that has the desired effect of making him thoroughly odious. This is also attained through the employment of post-coitus, weeping prostitutes and passive-aggressive murder.
The film charts the power play between the Bondurant brothers and the corrupt law enforcement – a confrontation that increases in both violence and tragedy exponentially. One particular scene drew hushed cries of shock from the audience. After brutally beating two out-of-town gangsters who were flirting with his girl, Forrest drags them outside and just leaves them there. Later on (both men having vanished) he goes to investigate one of his cars that appears to have been meddled with, muttering such nuances as “well, this ‘ain’t right” and “what’s happened here”, before being grabbed from behind by the same out-of-town gangsters he’d neglected to dispose of properly, and having his throat cut from ear to ear. However, the icing on the cake is when he claims to have walked about twenty miles to get sewn up. Oh, Hardy!
Thrown into the mix is a dashing, if innocuous, appearance from Gary Oldman, playing the notorious, tommy-gun-wielding mobster Floyd Banner, whom, through blinkered ambition, Jack Bondurant supplies with moonshine for a healthy profit, but not before almost being murdered.
Caught up in the flamboyancy of being a career criminal, Jack uses his bolstered income to court Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska) who is the daughter of the local preacher. In parallel Forrest Bondurant begins a tepid relationship with Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain), who fled Chicago and began working at the Bondurant’s bar. The courtships offer a few chuckles, with both men being inexperienced with matters of the heart and Forrest being endearingly monosyllabic at times.
The Bondurants are renowned for being invincible – a myth that Rakes calls into question and, for the best part of the film, is actually supported as fact. This in itself is entertaining and the few true action sequences are indeed engaging and thrilling to watch. The ultimate showdown between the Bondurants and the police is a pastiche of poor marksmanship and confusion, but watching everyone get shot is loads of fun!
The violence of the film is magnetically brutal, but not excessive. There is no inclination towards gore – simply a wanton realism to convey the harshness of both the characters and their circumstance. Much like The Road, which was bleakly horrific, John Hillcoat’s direction is grounded in veracity, even if some of the events seem a little unbelievable at times, or even downright strange. As Nick Cave’s third screenwriting effort, we are offered believable and entertaining dialogue that upholds the pace of the film well. So inclined was I towards the characters, I could have happily continued watching their exploits for half an hour more. Whilst the female characters have little in the way of verbal strength to them, one can assume that this was more of a product of the times, rather than Cave’s writing. With that in mind, Chastain offers a persuasively resilient performance as the wayward Beauford.
Of course, Hillcoat and Cave are long-time collaborators and it shows. There is a genuine synergy between script and direction, and whilst the subject matter is just as serious as something like The Proposition, it is definitely more of an entertaining, character-focused outing for the duo.
Lawless is an enjoyable ‘end of the wild west’ crime romp that has some very strong performances as well as a humorous and entertaining subtext. The graphic nature of some of the violence may put some people off, but come for the blood and stay for the Hardy, because that’s how you’ll feel when you leave.
Reviewed by James Wright