Based on a novel, written by the grandson of one of the bootlegging brothers featured, Lawless is the gangster film adaptation of The Wettest County in the World. The world it shows succeeds in seeming both authentic and looking spectacular; it features a great cast, on good form, yet it does struggle to present a relatable main character to the audience and any film would find it hard to meet the expectations its cast brings.
During the Prohibition era, Franklin County’s Bondurant brothers, Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia LaBeouf), run a liquor bootlegging business. Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) demands a cut from all of Franklin’s bootleggers; when Forrest refuses and threatens Rakes, the situation intensifies to all-out war.
A gangster tale, with more than a little western evident in its setting and style, it might not be the most original story (not just because it’s based on a true story and was a book first), but it does hold your interest throughout. The visuals of the open rural county continually impress, particularly in its use of lighting and shadow. One shot, where flames from the numerous distilleries break the dark of the surroundings at night, was especially memorable. These eye-catching sections help to make the hard-violence more shocking, powerful and painful looking. Whether it’s from its authenticity or its affecting visuals, Lawless creates a world that appears dense and elaborate.
The Bondurant brothers become mythological folk-heroes, but their criminal world never seems glamorous. As both sides clash, they continue to cause trouble, as the brutal violence continues and it makes it harder to support or identify with a character on either side. LaBeouf’s Jack is the closest to being the main protagonist; his attempts to prove himself to and against his brothers are what frame the story. Hardy never really says much, but like he did as Bane, he can get through a scene with his large frame, strong stare and by simply grunting and “erring” indecipherably. Pearce supplies the most noteworthy performance, as a psychopathic, angry and narcissistic lawman that holds the locals in contempt. It’s particularly conspicuous, as Pearce often performs in an understated manner, so it was impressive, and different, to see him accomplish such a showy performance and to stand out above such a strong cast.
Although well shot and well acted, Lawless doesn’t manage to live up to the high expectations that its ensemble cast provide or to be the crime epic that it tries to be. It’s visually great and tells an interesting story; but it finishes on a weak note, with a thoroughly unsatisfying epilogue. It’s a solid film, which only at times comes off as spectacular.
- Jon Bartholomew