Review: LAWLESS

By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

 

I love a good gangster movie.  I particularly enjoy gangster films based on true stories. The appeal with this genre probably stems from the interest in what causes a seemingly “normal” person to resort to a life of crime and to what lengths criminals will go to stay alive, protect their loved ones, remain in power, and ambitiously rise in the ranks.  During Prohibition, especially during the onset of the Great Depression (1929 – 1933), people resorted to bootlegging alcohol to survive.  Lawless tells one such true story of a trio of brothers who take up this business in Franklin County, Virginia and how quickly things turn ugly and violent when greedy authorities want a taste.

Based on the novel, “The Wettest County in the World”, by Matt Bondurant, the film details how the Bondurant brothers fight back when Special Deputy Rakes (Guy Pearce) tries to shake them down for an excessive cut of their profits.  Forrest and Howard Bondurant (Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke) have always been the brains and muscle behind the operation and baby brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf) has always been the delivery driver. After Rakes’ men attack and wound Forrest, it is up to the once timid Jack to assume a more dominant role in the family business.

It is no coincidence that Matt Bondurant shares a surname with the characters of this story.  Matt is actually a direct descendant of the brothers, specifically, Jack’s grandson.  I had the pleasure of speaking briefly with Bondurant prior to a special screening of the film.  I asked Bondurant, “At what point in your life and career did you decide to write about your family’s history?” He replied, “Probably about fifteen years ago. I started to uncover a variety of articles.  I had a general sense they that they were involved in moonshine, but it wasn’t until I discovered articles about it.”  I have not read his novel, but I found the film wholly fascinating and engrossing.

Director John Hillcoat (The Road) and his crew masterfully re-create the prohibition/depression era and musical artist Nick Cave proves himself as a talented screenwriter with a script that rarely falters.  My only criticism regarding the script probably would be that the structure feels like a prototypical gangster story, offering few surprises.  To Cave’s credit, he does nicely develop these extraordinary characters and according to Matt Bondurant, he and Hillcoat remain faithful to his novel.  Bondurant offered the filmmakers his praise and admiration. “As far as adaptations go, I feel it is really well done. They told me early on that they wanted to stay true to the spirit of the novel. Hillcoat, Cave and LaBeouf were all very serious about bringing the book alive as best as they could.”

For any detractors or non-fans of LaBeouf as an actor, he may have redeemed himself with his work in this film.  He fills the role of Jack Bondurant comfortably and shows that he has the ability to handle more serious, dramatic work.  It should go without saying that the sublimely gifted actor Tom Hardy assumes the role of Forrest flawlessly.  He hasn’t failed to impress me with his variety of work.  Another remarkable actor, Guy Pearce is nearly unrecognizable as the hateful and corrupt Charlie Rakes.  He definitely can pull off a villain that audiences will love to despise.  Other talents worth noting are the lovely Jessica Chastain who plays the sexy and mysterious Maggie Beauford and Jason Clarke who portrays the gruff brother Howard, and apparently, flawlessly.  During the post-screening Q & A, Bondurant applauded Clarke for portraying his uncle perfectly.

In addition to Bondurant, I had the honor and pleasure of speaking with music legend Willie Nelson who contributes the song “Midnight Run” to the movie’s soundtrack.  When asked about his opinion of the film, Nelson enthusiastically offered his acclaim as well. “I think it is a great movie, especially if you like realistic movies.”  So, don’t just take my word for it.  Willie Nelson highly recommends this film as well.  I do believe that fans of prohibition-era gangster movies will really enjoy the film.  The movie is Rated R for graphic violence, strong language and nudity so it may not appeal to more delicate audience members and is certainly not intended for children.  However, if one finds films of this genre appealing, it is worth a full priced ticket.

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