“Lawless,” written by Nick Cave and Matt Bondurant (novel), directed by John Hillcoat, 115 minutes, rated R.
There are depression-era criminals who have gone down in history as legends, known for their larger-than-life personalities, luxurious lifestyles and daring acts of defiance. Al Capone, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, John Dillinger. These guys fit that bill.
Then there are the Bondurant brothers, the real-life antiheroes of John Hillcoat’s latest film “Lawless,” who, some might argue, were the last of a dying breed.
Hillcoat’s film takes us to Franklin County, Virginia, the wettest county in the nation during the prohibition. The brothers – Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke), and the runt of the litter, Jack (Shia LaBeouf) – are small-time bootleggers who keep to themselves, tooling around in a jalopy and evading the lax law enforcement with a bribe of a few mason jars of moonshine here and there.
The simple life of the blue-collar Bondurants is disrupted when hotshot Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) rolls into Franklin County looking for a cut of the profits from their white lightning. Unlike other moonshiners in the county, the Bondurants don’t take kindly to being told what to do, and their resistance ignites an all-out war with Rakes and his cronies.
Meanwhile, youngest brother Jack, the sensitive Bondurant, becomes determined to grow the family business and carve out a leading role for himself in the world of crime. Unlike Forrest, who is content sitting on his modest porch and laying low, Jack wants money and everything that comes with it, mostly fancy suits and fast cars. His eyes are bigger than his skill set, and he gets in over his head in a world where his life is on the line with the slightest slip-up.
Shia LaBeouf portrays Jack much in the same way he did with a young Dito Montiel in “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints,” with hints of vulnerability, innocence, and the desire to grow up too fast. It’s a nice compliment to Hardy’s Forrest, whose dialogue is hardly audible at times through the grunts of his gruff personality, and Clarke’s Howard, who resembles a professional wrestler in both build and behavior.
These brothers are really what separates “Lawless” from other crime movies set in the 1930s. This isn’t a gangster movie, but a western. John Hillcoat has a different vision of the era than most filmmakers do, and the story of the Bondurant brothers is right in his wheelhouse. As the violence gets gritty, the gun fights become more intense, and the consequences become real, there’s no mistaking it. Yup. This is a western. And it’s a good one.