FILM REVIEW: ‘Lawless’ deserves round on the house

FILM REVIEW: ‘Lawless’ deserves round on the house
Shia LaBeouf and Mia Wasikowska star in the film “Lawless,” based on author Matt Bondurant’s fictionalized account of his family. Photo by Richard Foreman, Jr., SMPSP/ The Weinstein Company

A well-earned round of drinks goes to “Lawless,” thanks to the profundity of its characters and the poetic beauty of its historical essence. 

I consider the crime drama to be one of the more definitive examples meant to be captured on the big screen, particularly when the story transpires during the heyday of criminal organizations.

My respect for the genre stems from my fascination with the concept of individuals grouping together to form a centralized enterprise to make a profit via illegal methods, as well as what motivates these persons into pursuing a life of crime.

Circumstances notwithstanding, I admire how the ones who have devoted themselves to these violent lifestyles deal with the consequences of their illicit activities and the fact that their professional lives are pretty much the same as their personal lives.

Beneath the “business, not personal” exterior lies a sensitive humanity that should not be taken for granted, no matter the moral compass.

With that in mind, “Lawless” touches the soul and strengthens the heart with a humble poignancy that would give other notable titles such as “The Godfather” and “Road to Perdition” reason to smile with pride.

Based on Matt Bondurant’s fictionalized account of his family, “The Wettest County in the World,” Jack (Shia LaBeouf), Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard Bondurant (Jason Clarke) operate a bootlegging business deep in the mountains of Franklin County, Va., during the Great Depression.

The local authorities that are interested in acquiring a portion of the brothers’ profits, introduce Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) to do just that. As tensions escalate between the lawful and the lawless, the bootleggers must do what they have to do in order to protect their way of life, their home and those closest to them.

What distinguishes “Lawless” from other members in the crime drama family tree is its focus on not the gangsters themselves, but their suppliers. I find this unconventional character emphasis to be a refreshing change of pace, which allows the audience to gain insight into the people who work behind-the-scenes to provide their clients a much-valued commodity: moonshine.

In addition, this deviation from the norm establishes a very down-to-earth atmosphere that rubs off on the characters to the point where they are just as much a part of their world as the world is of them. Each conversation shared among the Bondurant brothers carries itself with the kind of emotional gravitas you would hear when speaking to someone you know.

Whether the current scene is about protecting the moonshine operation to survive or learning what it means to be true to your family, these characters’ struggles fit into this harsh yet unassuming world without a glitch.

Director John Hillcoat succeeds in capturing the ambiance of 1930s America during the Prohibition Era. Everything — clothing, vehicles, weapons, buildings, dialect, social norms — are taken into account and convey the feeling that the characters you see on the screen were once real people who fought to protect what became their lifestyle from being torn apart.

Shia LaBeouf turns over a new leaf from his “Transformers” days, fully immersing himself in Jack’s journey from runt to equal every step of the way.

Tom Hardy defies all odds and demonstrates a high threshold for pain as the ever-resilient Forrest; his performance exudes an absorbing solemnity that makes his stoicism come off as serious and funny at the appropriate moments.

Jessica Chastain is a mesmerizing presence to behold as she balances the inner strength and vulnerability of Maggie Beauford with confidence. She is a true credit to the cast, and I am grateful I got to witness her abilities for the first time in “The Debt.” Guy Pearce, being the chameleon he always is, never holds back when it comes to exhibiting cruelty and contempt toward the Bondurant brothers.

Jason Clarke turns in a solid performance as the middle brother, Howard, while Dane DeHaan excels in his scenes as Cricket.

Gary Oldman makes an explosive debut as the understated Floyd Banner.

With a sympathetic take on characters akin to that of “The Godfather” and the emotionally gripping hardships of “Road to Perdition,” “Lawless” emerges triumphant as its own distinctive outlook on the world of crime.

4 out of 4

When: Now playing in wide release
Run time: 1 hour 55 minutes
Rating: R

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