Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Guy Pearce
Rating: R, for strong bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity
Runtime: 1 hour, 55 minutes
Bottom line: For action fans only
“Lawless” offers gunfights, drama, some comedy, and strong performances. That should be the makings of something great, but these elements do not mesh. Instead, they produce an uneven, disappointing movie.
Shot entirely in Georgia (mostly in Coweta County), this is a movie with an identity crisis.
It’s set in Franklin County, Va., during Prohibition and focuses on the Bondurant brothers, who are the most successful, fiercest moonshiners (there’s a running joke that the Bondurants can’t be killed) in a county where so much liquor was being produced illegally it earned the nickname “the wettest county in the world.”
Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy) is the brains of the operation, Howard (Jason Clarke) is the enforcer, and young Jack (Shia LaBeouf) is timid but wants desperately to prove himself.
A series of things shake up the Bondurants’ world. Jack falls in love with the daughter (Mia Wasikowska) of a Quaker preacher who naturally disapproves of Jack.
A stunning former showgirl named Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain) shows up suddenly and applies for a job running the diner that the Bondurants use as a front. Maggie immediately begins to penetrate Forrest’s impassive, tough façade.
But the real trouble comes when the local authorities bring in a psychotic crooked cop from Chicago, Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), to extort money from all the local moonshiners.
Most of the moonshiners fall into line, wanting to avoid trouble, but the Bondurants will not be moved. They refuse and are soon locked in a bloody war with Rakes that grows increasingly ugly and threatens to harm the people the Bondurants care for the most.
“Lawless” is based on a novel by Matt Bondurant called “The Wettest County in the World,” which draws heavily on his own family’s real history as moonshiners and bootleggers. Bondurant spoke after a recent screening of the movie, and it was surprising to hear how many of the basic facts of the movie are true.
For instance, Forrest Bondurant really was shot and stabbed numerous times, surviving every attack. The locals genuinely feared the brothers. And there really was a sheriff who openly tried to kill the Bondurants.
However, much was obviously lost in the adaptation from novel to screen (the screenplay was written by Nick Cave), because the movie’s biggest flaw is that it doesn’t seem as authentic as a period movie ought to be.
The Bondurant boys get away with beating local policemen to a pulp. Pearce’s portrayal of Charlie Rakes as an unapologetic pervert and sadist with no eyebrows makes Rakes a caricature.
Jack witnesses a mob killing right on the main, dirt street of their little town. Infamous kingpin Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) chases down a couple of rivals and just happens to gun them down — himself — in the middle of tiny Franklin County?
Just as unbelievable is the idea that Maggie would suddenly move all the way from Chicago to a notorious moonshining area hoping to settle into a quiet life. Nor does it make sense that she’d stick around after she discovers how the Bondurants really earn a living.
Beyond those flaws, the violence pushes the whole affair all the way over the top. I suppose they played up the blood and guts to draw young action fans to a period movie, or perhaps it’s a mark of Cave’s macabre sensibilities, but it’s all simply too much.
Those young action fans may leave satisfied, but I doubt many other people will.
“Lawless” had great source material and a great cast. The finished product, however, bears all the signs of a missed opportunity.
Jeff Marker teaches film and literature at Gainesville State College. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.