When it was released in cinemas last September, there were rumblings that Lawless would be in the running for the Oscars. It rather lost momentum over the last few months and ended up with no nominations at all. It’s a shame as while it’s not a masterpiece, Tom Hardy deserved a nod in one of the acting categories and the cinematography should also have been acknowledged. Indeed, I’d have included it in the Best Picture category ahead of Amour and Silver Linings Playbook.
Hardy plays Forrest Bondurant, who along with his brothers, Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia LaBeouf), run a bootlegging operation in Franklyn County, Virginia during the Prohibition era. They are no-nonsense, tough men who think nothing of a bit of violence in order to get things done – or at least Forrest and the virtually mute Howard are, while Jack is younger and has been protected from the more brutal aspects of life around him.
Despite the pressures of the Depression, the government is keen to crack down on illegal booze and so sends Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) to Franklin to shut the stills down. This sets him on a course to butt heads with the Bondurants, who soon come to realise that Rakes may believe he’s infallible and has the weight of the government behind him, but he’s also cruel, sadistic, violent and believes these ‘rednecks’ are scum to be eradicated with bullets and knives. As the Bondurants expand their operation a war starts between the brothers and Rakes, with the ambivalent local law enforcement stuck in the middle.
The film is based on a true story (although it does take a few liberties), and creates a potent mix of rural, rather laconic period drama, mixed with moments of intense action and brutal violence. There are several scenes that are really quite shocking, including a particularly nasty incident with a knife and Tom Hardy’s throat.
It’s a bit of a slow burn, particularly in the first 30 minutes when director John Hillcoat lays the groundwork and gradually introduces us to this world. This allows the film to build its universe, where the type of action we’re used to from urban set gangster thrillers is tempered by the more reserved world of rural Virginia. Forrest and Howard are men of few words, and when they do speak they have a tendency to mumble (indeed 2012 was the year of Tom Hardy being sometimes difficult to understand in films). But you never forget that these men are coiled springs, ready to take action at a moment’s notice with their own code of conduct that has nothing to do with the law.
Jack meanwhile is softer and less worldly. Much of the film deals with his journey from being an innocent who’s rather in awe of the big-city-style gangsters, towards the point where he’d take up arms himself in the full understanding of what that means.
Although the film is sometimes a little meandering and women are given slightly short shrift – I did wonder whether Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska’s roles were larger in the original screenplay but got cut down during editing – the strong male characters and performances, as well as some incredibly dramatic scenes, ensure it’ll keep you hooked. It all builds towards a climax that works brilliantly.
It’s a movie that looks good and that really shines on Blu-ray, highlighting the beautiful locales (with Georgia standing in for Virginia) and production design. The picture is sharp, showing off the wonderful lighting, which ranges from crisp, wintry daylight to a great use of inky shadows. The audio also works extremely well, contrasting the quiet of the countryside with the moments of brutal violence.
Lawless is a good movie – indeed if it could have maintained the quality of its best moments all the way through, we would now be talking about it as one of the absolute frontrunners for the Oscars. However there are a few too many lulls for that, where it never gets bad but its laconic tension dips and gives the film a slightly uneven feel. It’s still a very entertaining and sometimes shocking movie that keeps you emotionally hooked though.
Overall Verdict: Excellent performances help ensure that despite lulls in the movie’s momentum, Lawless is great Prohibition tale that sucks you into reserved yet brutal world of the Bondurants.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac