When it was originally released in 1932, Howard Hawks’ film Scarface was slapped with the subtitle The Shame of the Nation by the MPAA because they felt the story glamorized the gangster lifestyle. Hollywood has had a love affair with gangsters, outlaws, drug dealers and renegades since the earliest days of filmmaking and audiences have been shown literally hundreds of examples of how dangerous that lifestyle can really be.
Lawless, directed by John Hillcoat, tells the story of Bondurant brothers who, at the height of the Great Depression, are operating an extremely lucrative moonshine operation in the hills of Franklin County, Virginia. The middle brother, Forrest (Tom Hardy), is the outfit’s leader, planning the production and distribution as well as unleashing unrelenting violence when necessary. The oldest brother, Howard (Jason Clarke), served in the Great War and is better at sampling their product than contributing to running the operation. The youngest brother, Jack (Shia LaBeouf), is treated as little more than a gofer, but gets it in his head that it’s his turn to take the reins.
The Bondurant boys run into trouble when Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) is appointed to crack down on the bootlegging that is happening in Franklin County. Rakes doesn’t want to stop the numerous outfits from producing. Instead, he expects every operation to give a cut of their profits in return for being allowed to continue their business with no interference from the local authorities. This doesn’t sit well with Forrest who tells Rakes he’ll never part with a single cent that he has earned. Thus sets off a battle of wills between the Bondurants and Rakes that escalates into all-out war.
Straddling the lines of several different genres, Lawless is one of the most beautifully filmed movies to come out in 2012. Hillcoat, who previously directed The Proposition and The Road, enjoys playing with genre conventions in his work. Though Lawless could be described as a gangster movie, it also has the feel of a Western and, at times, a tragedy. Where HBO’s Boardwalk Empire shows off the glitz and glamour for criminals of the Prohibition Era, Hillcoat has stripped all the appeal out of the bootlegging lifestyle. With stark landscapes and images drained of color, Hillcoat shows the reality of what cooking moonshine really entailed.
Tom Hardy once again proves why he is one of the most talented actors working today. As Forrest, he is quiet, reserved and incredibly fearsome. He also manages to let a very sensitive and maternal aspects slip through, as he fills the role of both father and mother to Jack and Howard. His love interest in the film, played by the incredible Jessica Chastain, also gives him a chance to show Forrest’s protective and possessive side. While Forrest could easily have been a one-note character, Hardy makes it a fountain of subtle traits and personality.
Becoming quite an impressive actor in his own right, LaBeouf gives his most genuine performance yet. Jack is the film’s cautionary tale, the young hotshot who is blinded by the money he and his brothers are making. He buys new suits and cars that he uses to woo a local preacher’s daughter (Mia Wasikowska). After an encounter with famous gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), Jack sees the kind of man he wants to be. If he continues giving performances like this, LaBeouf will have no problem shedding the child actor/Transformers baggage.
Lawless is a terrific piece of filmmaking from an incredibly talented director who understands the power of film. With luck, we will be hearing from it again when awards season rolls around.