Forrest Bondurant can definitely take a few hits. In fact in “Lawless,” Forrest not only takes hits, he gets his throat slit and is left for dead out in the cold and he gets shot three or four times. And he survives miraculously.
Forrest is played by Tom Hardy, the 34-year-old Brit who, of late, has proven himself to be a great actor, particularly a great physical actor. Whether he’s playing the broken-down, mixed-martial-arts fighter in “Warrior” or the terrorist villain Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises,” he knows how to play hardened, reserved characters prone to violence and damage.
Speaking in a low, Southern drawl, Hardy doesn’t draw too much attention to himself; a lot of his performance comes from body motions and facial expressions. He has a stern, muscular build and such an honest stare, you’d think he’s staring into your soul.
He’s the center of John Hillcoat’s (“The Road”) new film, which is an expertly crafted exercise in the old-school, gangster-movie genre.
A cast of characters
“Lawless” is set during the Prohibition era, and while we catch a few glimpses of Chicago, the movie takes place in the rural, heavily forested Franklin County, Va. (dubbed “the wettest county in the world”). There, Forrest, his brothers Jack (Shia LaBeouf) and Howard (Jason Clarke) and a few assorted others run a moonshining business.
The film is gorgeously shot on location in Atlanta. Cinematographer Benoit Delhomme makes the multiple colors of the various objects within the environment pop off the screen.
Out here, the inhabitants keep to themselves, just trying to get along and survive. Moonshining doesn’t even seem illegal, but just another way of making a living. When the Bondurants oblige the local cops, it just feels like friends exchanging hi’s along the road — and 15 crates of moonshine.
However, this simple, seemingly peaceful environment runs into danger in the shape of Charlie Rakes (a quirky Guy Pearce), a special agent from Chicago. With his slicked-back, artificially colored hair, a shaven face (including eyebrows) and a sharp wardrobe, Rakes is everything the Bondurants and the other Franklin County folk aren’t: He’s a vile, slimy, almost-reptilian creature, representing all of the corruption and sadism of the big city. We don’t see him eat or sleep. He’s pure evil.
A character study
“Lawless” isn’t a revisionist historical film like Quentin Tarintino’s “Inglorious Bastards,” and it isn’t comic book-y like Brian De Palma’s own Prohibition picture, “The Untouchables.” Instead, it’s more like Michael Mann’s John Dillinger biopic “Public Enemies,” a straightforwardly told crime saga.
The screenplay by Nick Cave (based on the nonfiction book “The Wettest County in the World,” by Matt Bondurant) is structured more episodically. But “Lawless” is character-driven, rather than plot-driven. It’s about the Bondurant brothers, three differently defined characters interacting with each other. And Forrest is the most compelling.
Like most other people in Franklin, he wants to get by. And, yet, if he doesn’t want to do something, he won’t do it. He does whatever he thinks is morally right to him. If provoked, he’ll beat a man to a bloody pulp without another thought.
As the eldest brother, he acts as a sort of father to Howard and Jack. He can be strict, especially with Jack, but he loves his brothers and wants to look out for them. He may be a hick, but he’s intelligent, though trouble still finds him.
Jack Bondurant is almost the exact opposite. He’s the youngest and least experienced, and yet, he’s the most ambitious.
Unlike Forrest, who would probably remain a rural moonshiner his entire life, Jack wants to be like Al Capone. He dresses in hotshot clothes and wants to drive fast cars.
In an early scene where Chicago gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) shoots up a car in town, it’s like a celebrity sighting for Jack. But he’s also foolish and naïve: He tries to impress a local girl, but he forgets to take the price tag off of his new coat.
A little bit of everything
The tone in “Lawless” is mostly dark and gritty. The movie has its fair share of brutal, violent and even disturbing scenes, but Hillcoat doesn’t overdo it. There isn’t a gunfight or a gory scene every two minutes; when they do come, they are earned.
Plus, Hillcoat and Cave are able to seamlessly blend comedy into the mix. Sometimes it’s playful, brotherly humor, and other times, it’s dark and a little twisted.
The supporting players — like Clarke as the more brutish middle brother or Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska as the two love interests — aren’t given much to do, but all three of them have one or two great moments.
My only problem with the movie is that the ending is a little awkward. Some information is conveyed and small events are shown that would have been better suited for an “afterwards…” informational scrawl that you see in most historical dramas based on true stories.
But “Lawless” is still an entertaining, character-motivated, back-to-basics crime drama.
If anything, see it for Hardy: He gives a quietly brilliant performance and continues to prove that he’s one of the best actors around.