“Lawless” is based on a book, “The Wettest County in the World”, written by one Matt Bondurant. It details the story of his ancestors, the Bondurant brothers and the moonshine operation they ran during Prohibition-era America in Franklin County, Virginia.
For those not familiar with Prohibition era America, during 1920 to 1933, there was a national ban of the sale, manufacture and transportation of alcohol. The movie takes us to 1931, where the Bondurant brothers, consisting of eldest brother Forrest (Tom Hardy), middle brother Howard (Jason Clarke) and the youngest runt of the pack Jack (Shia LaBeouf) operate a bootlegging service with a bar serving as their front.
Unfortunately for the brothers, trouble soon arrives in the form of the law – a newly arrived Special Deputy, Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), who informs them that he wants a cut of the profit derived from the entire county's illegal activities. When Forrest convinces the county not to give in, Rakes starts terrorizing the county with his intimidation tactics.
The obvious strong point of the movie (besides the heavy violence) lies in the character-led performances of course. The villains are particularly memorable, with Guy Pearce channeling his best classic big city sleazeball and then getting down to what they do best; bullying rural folk. He's menacing and frankly, all sorts of violent in the role. He easily steals any scene he's in. Gary Oldman too, makes a small cheeky appearance as legendary American gangster Floyd Banner, otherwise known in popular culture as “Pretty Boy Floyd”. Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain both star as the women in the Bondurants' wives, Mia's daughter of a preacher serving as the foil for a forbidden love with the young Jack and Chastain's Maggie, a dancer from big city Chicago, the counterpart to the rough and gruff Forrest.
It's a great ensemble cast. But the onus is clearly on the eldest and youngest Bondurant brothers here. LaBeouf has been annoying in his previous few films, but here... he's actually kind of tolerable witout his usual rapid fire panic manner of speaking. Granted, his character is behind most of the trouble and that's kind of annoying, but we'll separate the character from the actor here. Tom Hardy on the other hand, delivers a terrific performance as a stone cold tough guy who'll go to any length to protect his and his family's American Dream. Add this to the list of memorable Tom Hardy performances this year ("The Dark Knight Rises", "This Means War"). The great thing about all this is that the roles of the two main characters are established right from the start, Jack wants to be like Forrest and be included in his family's business. And Forrest won't be intimidated by anyone in giving up his business to anyone, not even the law.
In addition to the commanding performances from the cast, the film looks fantastic as well. The era is faithfully recreated, the cars, signs and fashion all reproduced lovingly. Even some of the more unsavoury characteristics of that particular era that people would rather forget... they're all there.
However, even with all that going for it, “Lawless” suffers from a fatal flaw. You never really get the point of it all. Despite the crazy levels of violence, the movie doesn't feel particularly dramatic nor thrilling, the characters, though well acted, feel a little flat and not very well fleshed out... becoming shallow shades of what they should be. At the end of it all, it was hard not to be impressed with the film's achievements... but yet, I wanted more from it as well. The lack of a clear central narrative theme really hurts the film as a whole. However, if you're in the mood to just enjoy an extremely well acted movie that's really powerful in spurts, and you like some gang violence, you're in for a treat. The spectacular visuals are just a bonus.\