Hollywood likes to romanticize history. World wars, westerns and even the Middle Ages all come off as exciting eras we all wish we could be a part of. The Prohibition is one of those periods, a time when gangsters roamed the city streets waging war over the right to sell illegal alcohol. “Lawless,” however, has no intention of sugarcoating the violence that comes with being a bootlegger.
The film tells the real story of the Bondurant brothers Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia LaBeouf) who get into the moonshining business down in Franklin County, Virginia. The brothers’ bootlegging ways are threatened when ruthless Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) comes from Chicago demanding a cut of their profits. When they refuse, the Bondurants trigger a war that puts blood on everyone’s hands.
Speaking of blood, the film is covered in it. You can’t escape the excessive amounts of gore every time there’s a brawl or shootout. While the violence reminds us of the Prohibition’s brutality, the film doesn’t revel in it. Instead, the film draws strength from the excellent use of the Southern period settings and the interactions between Hardy, Clarke and LaBeouf.
As with his “Dark Knight Rises” role as Bane, Hardy conveys a lot about his character here through body language. He plays a reasonable man who is not afraid to get dirty when a job needs to be done. This contrasts well with his younger brother, LaBeouf’s Jack, whose inexperience makes him soft. While you could be forgiven for typecasting LaBeouf as the annoying kid from “Transformers,” his role here conveys a lot of maturity. He goes from a naïve kid to hardened bootlegger in a very realistic fashion, and his journey is the emotional heart of the film.
Pearce plays a sadistic villain, easily a standout as he viciously kills and tortures those closest to the Bondurants. A scene where he brutally beats up LaBeouf is especially memorable and a definite highlight. While the Bondurants and Pearce’s character are all fully developed, the side characters could do with some fleshing out.
Gary Oldman does the best he can with a small role as a Chicagoan gangster, and I was surprised he didn’t factor into the plot more. Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska play Hardy and LaBeouf’s love interests, respectively, but they don’t play into the story that much. Chastain gives off a strong performance with what she has, but Wasikowska’s character is more of a side story for LaBeouf than anything else.
While the performances are exceptional and the Prohibition south setting does wonders, the film is ultimately let down by a predictable plot and rushed climax. Even so, a steady pace coupled with high stakes and realistic violence make the film a pleasure to watch. If you’re looking for an entertaining Southern gangster film that doesn’t shy away from showing the darker side of the Prohibition era, then “Lawless” is definitely for you.