Forrest Bondurant can definitely take a few hits. In fact in “Lawless,” Forest not only takes hits, he gets his throat slit and is left for dead out in the cold and he gets shot three or four times. And he survives miraculously. Forest is played by Tom Hardy, the 34 year old Brit who of late has proven himself to be a great actor, particularly a great physical actor. Whether he’s playing the broken down MMA fighter in “Warrior” or the terrorist villain Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises,” he knows how to play hardened reserved characters that are prone to violence and damage.
Speaking in a low, southern drawl, Forest is one of those tough, reserved men who says little, only what’s needed. Hardy doesn’t draw too much attention to himself and a lot of the performance comes from his body motions and facial expressions. He has a stern muscular build and has such an honest stare, like he’s staring into your soul. He’s the center of John Hilcoat’s new film, which is an expertly crafted exercise in the old school gangster movie genre.
“Lawless” is set during the prohibition era, and while we do catch a few glimpses of Chicago, the movie takes place in the rural, heavily forested Franklin County, Virginia (dubbed “The wettest county in the world”). There, Forest, his two brothers Jack (Shia LaBeouf) and Howard (Jason Clarke) and a few assorted others run a moonshining business.
Gorgeously shot on location in Atlanta--the cinematographer Benoit Delhomme really makes the multiple colors of the various objects within the environment pop off the screen—Hilcoat (“The Road”) creates an atmosphere that’s comforting and a sense of community. Out here, the local inhabitants keep to themselves, just trying to get along and survive. Moonshining doesn’t even seem illegal, just another way of making a living. When the Bondurant’s oblige the local cops it just feels like friends exchanging “hi’s” along the road (and fifteen crates of moonshine).
However, this simple seemingly peaceful environment runs into danger in the shape of Charlie Rakes (a quirky Guy Pearce), a special agent from Chicago. With his slicked back, artificially colored hair, a shaven face (including eyebrows), and a sharp wardrobe, Rakes is everything the Bondurants and the other Franklin County folk aren’t. He’s a vile, slimy, almost reptilian creature, representing all of the corruption and sadism of the big city. We don’t see him eat or sleep. He’s pure evil.
“Lawless” isn’t a revisionist historical film like Quentin Tarintino’s “Inglorious Basterds” and it isn’t comic book-y like Brian De Palma’s own Prohibition picture “The Untouchables” (although the character of Rakes is a cartoonish villain); instead, it’s more like Michael Mann’s John Dillinger bio pic “Public Enemies,” a straightforwardly told crime saga. Most of what happens plot wise isn’t that profound or original. The Bondurants face a number of trials and obstacles, most having to do with Rakes, and then there’s some romance thrown in. The screenplay by Nick Cave (based on the non-fiction book “The Wettest County in the World,” by Matt Bondurant) is structured more episodically. But “Lawless” is character driven rather than plot driven. It’s about the Bondurant brothers, three differently defined characters interacting with each other. And Forest is the most compelling.
Unlike many outlaw heroes in these kinds of movies, Forest isn’t looking for attention or trouble. In an early scene when the brothers make an exchange with the police he doesn’t even look at them He doesn’t wear fancy clothes; he doesn’t have a huge home. It doesn’t even seem like he drinks any of his moonshine. He’s a businessman, not a criminal. Like most other people in Franklin he wants to get by. And yet if he doesn’t want to do something he won’t do it. He does whatever he thinks is morally right (to him). If provoked he’ll beat a man to a bloody pulp without another thought.
As the oldest brother he acts as a sort of father to Howard and Jack. He can be strict, especially with Jack, but he loves his brothers and wants to look out for them. He may be a hick but he’s intelligent, though trouble still finds him. He tells Rakes to shove off when he first comes and tries to extort his business but he underestimates his opponent. He doesn’t realize how vicious and determined Rakes is. Hardy isn’t explosive or over the top. With him, the less said the better. Often times Hardy will give this grunt, when he’s annoyed or confused, that’s as effective as it would be if he delivered some long monologue.
Jack Bondurant is almost the exact opposite. He’s the youngest and least experienced. And yet he’s the most ambitious. Unlike Forest, who would probably remain a rural moonshiner his entire life, Jack wants to be like Al Capone. He dresses in hotshot clothes and wants to drive fast cars. In an early scene when a Chicago gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) shoots up a car in town, it’s like a celebrity sighting for Jack. But he’s also foolish and naïve; he tries to impress a local girl but he forgets to take the price tag off of his new coat.
He gets himself and his brothers into a lot of trouble. But at the same time this headstrongness sometimes pays off, like when he gets a great sale from Banner. I’ve never been a huge fan of LaBeouf. He’s either an annoying goof ball (in the “Transformer” movies) or I can’t take him seriously (as in “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”) but this role is perfect for him. Jack is a cocky screw-up, LaBeouf excels in that and he brings a great amount of class and confidence to the part.
The tone in “Lawless” is mostly dark and gritty. As the movie goes on Rakes cracks down on the Bondurant boys even harder. He resorts to unorthodox methods like tar and feathering. The movie has its fair share of brutal, violent and even disturbing scenes. But Hilcoat doesn’t overdo it. There isn’t a gunfight or a gore scene every two minutes; when they come they are earned. Plus Hilcoat and Cave are able to seamlessly blend comedy into the mix as well. Sometimes it’s playful, brotherly humor, and others it’s dark and a little twisted.
The supporting players like Clarke as the more brutish middle brother or Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska as the two love interests, aren’t given much to do but all three of them have one or two great moments. My only real problem with the movie is that the very end is a little awkward. Some information is conveyed and small events shown that would have been better suited for an “afterwards…” informational scrawl that you see in most historical dramas based on true stories. But “Lawless” is still an entertaining, character motivated, back to basics crime drama. If anything, see it for Hardy; he gives a quietly brilliant performance and continues to prove that he’s one of the best current actors around.