I always get excited when I see a period piece come to theaters that doesn’t star Keira Knightley. Now, this is not to knock Ms. Knightley, rather, it is to highlight the fact that when you have a chance to see a picture that depicts another stage in the development of America, I’m instantly attracted to it. Lawless is the rare film that doesn’t flinch in the face of portraying the corruption and deceit on both sides of the law that plagued the country during prohibition in the 1920s and 1930s.
The film opens with an effective scene of Forrest, Howard and Jack Bondurant when they were kids. The two older brothers, Forrest and Howard, are goading Jack into shooting a pig for their supper. Jack simply cannot kill the pig and his older brothers take care of it for him. The sets up one of the film’s main conflicts in how vastly different the brothers are in terms of sensitivity and adaptability. The three brothers are in the moonshine business, folks, and they run one of the most successful operations in Virginia. Little do they know that Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a corrupt cop from Chicago, is going to come to town soon to try to take control of their operation.
One aspect of Lawless that is so breathtaking to watch is the actors that are bringing this story to fruition. Tom Hardy, is one of the most exciting actors to burst onto the scene in the last three years. His charisma as the eldest brother, Forrest, is the most dynamic performance in the film. Forrest is a man that has had to come to grips with reality and take care of his two brothers and handle himself in a seedy business accordingly. His stealth resolve throughout the picture is a wonder to behold. Shia LaBeouf, as the sensitive youngest brother, Jack, is also a magnetic feat to watch, as he longs for approval from his older brothers. LaBeouf has always been a phenomenal younger actor, constantly cast in the wrong projects that never deliver on his range. Here, he has his chance. Jessica Chastain contributes her dignified grace as an exotic dancer escaping the big city to run to Forrest’s side and Mia Wasikowska is the local preacher’s daughter that takes interest in Jack.
As the trio of brothers attempt to navigate the even seedier underbelly of bootlegging when the law is involved, we are exposed to a presentation dedicated to the study of principles. The picture explores what each brother holds dear and what each brother is willing to accept in terms of loyalty, betrayal and abuse. The middle brother, Howard, played by Jason Clarke, never fully connects because so much of the main conflict is placed on Forrest and Jack. Jack has always been sensitive by nature and therefore categorized as useless by the two older brothers in terms of the business and what he can offer. He finally takes matters into his own hands and sets up a deal with a local mobster, played by the always phenomenal Gary Oldman, and finally wins Forrest’s respect. But things do not stay peaceful for long due to needless showboating and grandeur on both brothers’ ends in differing ways.
The other feature that makes Lawless truly great is the breathtaking cinematography by Benoit Delhomme. From one take to the next, the scenes we are exposed to are breathtaking. A dull or bland shot never makes its way into the screen during the entire picture. This is a film nestled in a significant period in American history and it never wavers from what it is portraying. The film is violent, very violent, true and remarkable. This isn’t a picture that is going to garner a lot of awards or revenue, but one that demands to be recognized because of the performances, story and progression of plot it offers. This is a top-notch cast at the top of their game, delivering a fascinating story. We always see character studies on the screen these days, but few have the fervor and engaging pull that Lawless does. I was not bored a single moment of this film and am willing to bet you won’t be either.
Lawless in now playing at Carmike Beverly Cinema 18 and Goodrich Savoy 16.