Lawless is a movie that spends a lot of its time talking about invincibility. The lead characters are three brothers making moonshine in Prohibition-era Virginia, who believe they’re basically immortal. No matter what life throws at them, they always survive.
Unfortunately, the film isn’t immune to some uneven storytelling – for all the talent and atmosphere on display here, Lawless doesn’t have the staying power of other gangster pictures. There was an opportunity here to portray the more complicated reality of Prohibition – that it wasn’t just bootleggers versus the law. But Lawless skimps on narrative, and plays its cards too close to its chest, leaving viewers colder than a dead gangster. Read on for my full review.
We’re introduced to the Bondurant brothers: Howard (Jason Clarke), Forrest (Tom Hardy), and Jack (Shia LaBeouf). Howard and Forrest run the family bootlegging business – Howard is a drunken wild man who provides the muscle in their outfit, and Forrest is the quiet, powerful leader. The older Bondurants want to keep their baby brother Jack out of the business, but Jack is drawn to the money and status it affords him, and believes the family invincibility legend will protect him.
The Bondurants find themselves in a tricky situation: a crooked district attorney has hired a sadistic Chicago deputy (Guy Pearce) to extract a cut of the profits from the bootleggers in the county. Forrest refuses, and a war brews between his family and the corrupt cops. Jack is caught in the middle, all while he tries to court Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), the daughter of a local preacher .
It’s great to watch the cast bounce off one another. Tom Hardy is fascinating as Forrest - especially with all the little quirks he builds into the performance, like the guttural sounds he makes when he’s deep in thought. Guy Pearce is a little over the top as Charlie Rakes, the insane special deputy. It’s not clear what’s driving Rakes to behave the way he does, but he certainly knows how to terrorize and brutalize people. He’s probably not the best ambassador for 1930s Chicago.
Like gangster films of the past, Lawless doesn’t quite know how to handle its female characters. Jessica Chastain plays Maggie, a former dancer who comes out to the country to work for the Bondurants in their gas station, and she somehow survives all the violence emotionally unscathed. The same goes for Bertha, the slightly rebellious object of Jack’s affections. We really needed to see the two women meet and talk about their part in the whole scheme. It could have shed some light on how we arrive at the implausibly harmonious end scene.
The core problem with Lawless is its story, which has a tendency to limp along when something violent isn’t happening. Characters don’t seem to make decisions based on their own goals, but because the script requires them to do one thing or another. Jack’s decision to take on Rakes at the end feels unbelievably impulsive – he charges a police blockade in an open-top truck, with every intention of shooting Rakes and going on his way. Things like that make you appreciate the value of public schooling.
Much of this has to do with how Lawless tries to challenge the viewer with its treatment of the Bondurant invincibility legend. The film can’t decide whether or not the boys are immortal, and this leads to a couple of confusing scenes, the worst of which occurs when Forrest is attacked outside his gas station. Does he walk to the hospital with his terrible wound, or does Maggie drive him there? How did Maggie get away from her attackers? The movie tries to be mysterious, and just bogs itself down instead.
As uneven as the story is, there is still a decent balance between action, drama and comedy in Lawless, enough to keep viewers engaged. Just don’t look too closely – the movie is about as shaky as the 1930s legal system. Lawless gets three stars out of four.
What did you think of Lawless? Is it a worthy addition to the Prohibition-era gangster lineup? Or does it deserve to get whacked? What’s your favourite 30s crime film? Sound off in the comments section! If you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers, and check out my other movie reviews:
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