Based on the best-selling novel The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, the movie is a gangster film.
Instead of real gangsters, we have the three Bondurant brothers, who just want to sell their moonshine in peace in their small Virginia town during Prohibition.
The Bondurant brothers are played with zeal by Shia LaBeouf as Jack, Tom Hardy as Forrest and Jason Clarke as Howard.
All seems well at first. The brothers are moving their moonshine all over the state, even giving the local law enforcement a special deal, because everyone knows everyone in this town and they just want to be left to their whiskey-drinking ways.
But when Guy Pearce’s corrupt Special Deputy Charlie Rakes shows up and attempts to weasel in on their profits, things escalate quickly.
All the local bootleggers agree to give him a share of their earnings, leaving only the brothers on the other side of the crooked law.
This movie really is Hardy’s movie. Shia LaBeouf gets top billing in this feature, but when the second-billed Hardy shows up on screen and flexes his muscle, he’s clearly the one the crowd begins to cheer for.
He loves his brothers. He loves his peace and quiet. But he doesn’t like being cheated and bullied. And he definitely doesn’t like anyone messing with his family.
He plays the eldest brother with a sort of dumb gentleman’s charm, grunting and growling his way through the film, inciting laughter most of the time.
Jessica Chastain plays Hardy’s love interest as well as the boys’ mother figure, and she’s been doing some really great work, too, evident in any picture she shows up in, from “The Help” and “Tree of Life” to “Take Shelter.”
She’s a force to be reckoned with and a perfect female match for Hardy.
LeBeouf basically plays the character he always plays, a young sort of goofy everyman who just wants to prove he’s more than just the little brother and that he has ambitions all his own.
He has plans to move their moonshining business over state lines and, by hooking up with Gary Oldman’s gangster Floyd Banner, he manages to do just that.
But it’s when Pearce shows up as the twisted, morally-corrupt deputy that things really get interesting.
If Pearce’s portrayal of Rakes is real and based on the actual man, then he might have just been the devil himself.
He’s an odd man, his mind steeped in violence and power, and he’ll stop at nothing to get the brothers to fall in line.
He’s always nicely dressed and always wears gloves to ensure he never gets his hands dirty. Figuratively and literally.
But he’s mean and vicious, and if you look in to his eyes, you can tell he’s had a history of doing some very evil and despicable deeds.
The movie is very violent and doesn’t shy away from putting it all on screen and making it feel as real as possible.
Tommy guns blast away; throats get sawed into; people get mangled; the fights are ruthless.
But it never really feels gratuitous. It feels natural for the time and shows just how really lawless the times were.
Every actor is good in this, especially Pearce and Hardy, who really allow the tension to flow when they’re on screen together.
It’s a shame Hardy and Oldman don’t share any scenes together on screen in this or their other feature this year, “The Dark Knight Rises.”
Nick Cave, who wrote one of the best westerns in the last few years, “The Proposition,” which also features Pearce, is spot on here. He breathes life into the characters, and you feel for each one and hope they all live through the final reel.
John Hillcoat, who directed “The Proposition” as well as the critically praised “The Road” is surely an up-and-coming film director. After directing several music videos over the ’80s and ’90s, he seems to be hitting his stride.
He captures all the dirt and grit of the times and lets it linger on the screen, never really rushing passed the eloquent scenes of people just living during The Depression.
The cinematography is amazing. The small flames that light up the Virginian mountainsides at night as the bootleggers brew their whiskey is breathtaking.
The town seems real and lived-in. Tons of small details show just how small-town life must have been like, and nothing is glitzy or glamorous. It’s muddy, dirty and grungy.
Prohibition didn’t last long, but this movie should.
It showcases a time in history that was brutal and savage, yet made us who we are today by fighting for what we believed in.
“Lawless” is playing at Rio 6 Cinemas, 806 E. Houston St.
Paul Gonzales is the entertainment writer at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 116, or at thescene@mySouTex.com.