John Hillcoat’s Lawless may seem a bit late to the game by exploring the illegal manufacture and distribution of alcohol during Prohibition because HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” has been mining similar territory for a few seasons already. But Hillcoat’s film was in development for years, under various titles and even with a wildly different cast, before it was finally financed and brought to the screen by Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures. The result is one of the year’s most gripping films: a great drama with a compelling story, fantastic performances, and stylish direction that immediately stands with the best pieces of art that explore this time period.
Trading in the same currency as one of television’s greatest programs, AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” Lawless explores themes of machismo, hubris, what it means to be a man, and the sacrifices necessary to run an illegal empire. Shia LaBeouf’s character is a Prohibition era Walter White, a young man who idolizes gangsters and finds some success running moonshine across state lines, so he dresses up in fancy clothes and drives flashy cars to prove to the world (and his love interest, Mia Wasikowska) that he’s a man and no longer the boy who’s been picked on his entire life. (It’s also similar to Andrew Dominik’s brilliant western, The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford.) This sort of chest-puffing buffoonery is the film’s way of setting up the pieces, and when they come falling down, they crash hard.
LaBeouf plays Jack, the youngest of three brothers with the last name of Bondurant, local boys who have built something of a legendary presence in their Franklin County, Virginia territory. Forrest (Tom Hardy) in particular has a mythical quality to him: he’s a man of few words – when he does speak, you better be sure you’re not the one he’s speaking to – and there’s an air of invincibility that surrounds him. Howard (Jason Clarke) is a similarly taciturn individual who gives us the feeling that he’s seen some horrible things in his life and been complicit in even worse. Their moonshining business gets a bit more interesting when Maggie (Jessica Chastain) rolls in from the big city looking to help out with the boys’ operation, and even more interesting when Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) is sent down from Chicago to take a cut of the profits. Rakes isn’t fond of opposition, so he makes it a personal quest to take out the Bondurants for good as they become the last men standing in what used to be an entire county full of bootleggers.
Hillcoat, who previously directed the overrated Aussie western The Proposition, is much more impressive this time behind the camera. His presence is occasionally felt (in the film’s quiet moments, in particular), but he’s never too flashy with his stylistic choices and he mostly lets the actors and the script do the heavy lifting. It’s a wise move, since this cast is more than capable and everyone delivers a memorable and terrific performance. Pearce’s creepy, eyebrow-less, unhinged performance is a highlight, and small turns from Gary Oldman as Chicago gangster Floyd Banner and Chronicle up-and-comer Dane DeHaan as LaBeouf’s crippled friend barely have time to register because everyone is so stellar all the way through. This is up there with Hardy’s finest performances, and LaBeouf is clearly applying himself since this is something of a passion project for him, not necessarily something that can be said about his studio work for the past few years. Chastain is also terrific, cementing her as one of Hollywood’s most talented leading ladies. (She’s the female equivalent of Michael Fassbender when it comes to recent meteoric rises from anonymity to the A-list.)
The action is well-staged, the relationships are plausible and satisfying, Nick Cave’s script sizzles in certain moments, and yet…there are rarely any surprises. It’s a captivating story, but because it treads such familiar ground, the film never seems to launch into that ineffable “next level.” The film has very few flaws – some pretty unbelievable aspects near the end test its “based on a true story” claims – but there’s nothing too egregious. It’s rare to see such a confluence of talent in front of the camera blend so well with that behind it, but Lawless is one of the rare films this summer that is satisfying on all levels. Visually, viscerally, emotionally, and aurally, this one is a must-see. Until next time…