By JAMES DAWSON
Front Row Features Film Critic
“The Dark Knight Rises” costars Tom Hardy and Gary Oldman never appear onscreen together in “Lawless,” Oldman shows up in only three scenes of the Prohibition-era drama and their characters couldn’t be more different. But the former Bane and Commissioner Gordon are equally unforgettable in this entertaining ensemble piece based on three real-life moonshine-making brothers in rural Prohibition-era Virginia.
Hardy is Forrest Bondurant, the brains of the outlaw outfit that supplies illegal hooch to locals ranging from the area’s segregated “coloreds” to the affable county sheriff. Bearish, proud and quietly intense, Forrest is the only bootlegger in the county who refuses to make payoffs to new-in-town special agent Charlie Rakes. “I’m a Bondurant, and we don’t lie down for nobody,” he proclaims.
Guy Pearce is hiss-worthily villainous as Rakes, a fastidious but viciously sadistic bow-tied dandy with an inch-wide center part in his slicked-down hair. Contemptuously condescending, Rakes thinks the local hicks are a “sideshow unto yourselves.” Make no mistake, though—there’s nothing funny about the way he uses his gloved fists to deliver an extended beatdown, or his petty murder of an unarmed prisoner.
Oldman is suit-wearing gangster Floyd Banner, the kind of professionally ruthless killer who’s not afraid to take a middle-of-the-street stance in order to tommy-gun an oncoming car. Youngest Bondurant brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf) witnesses that event, receiving a friendly wink when Banner spots him. Jack later admiringly tells his brothers that Banner “looked like he had direction and vision.”
Third Bondurant Howard (Jason Clarke) is the meat-headed muscle of the trio. When two deputies working for Rakes try intimidating Forrest into paying up, Forrest remains seated on the front porch and calmly asks them, “Have you met Howard?” His bearish brother then explodes from the front door to pound both armed lawmen into the dirt with his bare hands.
The film’s trigger-happy, throat-slitting, neck-breaking savagery is sometimes brutally graphic, but what feels more movie-gratuitous than the violence is a midpoint musical montage (set to a countrified version of Lou Reed’s “White Light/White Heat,” of all things). Relatively straightforward up to then, the film shifts tone after this misguided “we’re in the money” moment to become slightly more Hollywood than hillbilly.
Part of the problem is that the ambitious but unworldly Jack becomes more prominent in the movie’s second half, and LaBeouf is outclassed by every other member of the cast. Jack is almost sitcom goofy in his awkward courtship of a preacher’s daughter played by Mia Wasikowska (“Alice in Wonderland”), and his eventual transformation from passive punching bag to righteous avenger isn’t quite convincing.
So much else about the movie works so well that those flaws seem trivial, however. Jessica Chastain expertly underplays her role as a county newcomer who left Chicago to get away from trouble but ends up falling for Forrest, who is too gruffly respectful to make the first move. Dane DeHaan (“Chronicle”) is excellent as Cricket Pate, a sweet-natured country boy with a “hinky” leg who helps run the Bondurant stills.
Nick Cave adapted the smart screenplay for “Lawless” from the memoir “The Wettest County in the World” by Matt Bondurant, grandson of the real-life Jack. Cave also scored the movie, which marks his third collaboration with director John Hillcoat. The two previously worked together on 2005’s “The Proposition” and 2009’s “The Road,” both of which featured Guy Pearce.
Cinematographer Benoit Delhomme, another holdover from “The Proposition,” deserves special mention for making “Lawless” look so backwoods beautiful. The movie takes place in Virginia but was shot in Georgia, with locations that include landscapes so lushly exotic and unusual they seem almost otherworldly.