Have you ever wondered what would happen if The Godfather (1972) hooked up with CBS’ The Waltons? I like to think their cinematic love child might look something like John Hillcoat’s Lawless, and, no, I don’t know where I’m going with this. Perhaps I’m trying to convey that, save for its Great Depression setting, the crime thriller follows in the footsteps of Francis Ford Coppola’s beloved classic. Perhaps I just want to point out that I spent a large portion of the film wanting to slap Shia LaBeouf’s character upside the head much as I would John Boy Walton given the opportunity. Mind you, I mean that in a good way.
All right, the story: adapted from Matt Bondurant’s novel The Wettest County in the World, which dramatises his family’s criminal activities during Prohibition, Lawless tells of three brothers smuggling moonshine across Franklin County, Virginia. They comprise Forrest (Tom Hardy), the monosyllabic mastermind; Howard (Jason Clarke), the alcoholic strong-arm; and Jack (Shia Labeouf), the young hothead desperate to prove himself. The Bondurants’ success draws the attention of a corrupt DA (Tim Tolin) who aims to take over the operation by any means necessary.
By “any means necessary”, I mean that he shows up for one scene only and lets Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) handle the matter with extreme prejudice. Guy Pearce is unrecognisable in the role. I appreciate the care that’s gone in his big city fashion and mannerisms. The villain may strike some as a bit of a caricature, what with his maniacal cruelty and unabashed smugness, but Chicago gangsters of the time did, in fact, behave like sociopathic prima donnas, influenced by their larger-than-life depictions in Hollywood pictures. In short, Rakes has come to believe his own hype.
The same could be said of Forrest, who seems to think himself invulnerable. Lawless puts this theory to the test, and we suspect things might have turned out differently for him if the screenplay by alternative singer-songwriter Nick Cave weren’t based on real events. Tom Hardy gives an exceptional performance as a man of many principles but very few words. I love his courtship with former stripper Maggie (Jessica Chastain), the way he conveys a wide range of conflicting emotions with a few simple grunts. It should be noted though that his character is not, as the promotional posters claim, a hero, or even a nice man, but a fearless criminal for whom we root because his enemies turn out all the more depraved and because we want his understated wisdom to get rewarded somehow.
The commercials also make it look like the youngest Bondurant brother is a valiant underdog trying to maintain his moral core in a world gone mad, you know, that guy Shia LaBeouf is always playing. In fact, he proves more akin to Fredo Corleone: a rash, largely incompetent upstart who continuously lets his ambition blind him to the dangers around. There’s more to him than that, of course, and LaBeouf does a good job of keeping the protagonist one step behind without losing our sympathy. Again, love interests seem to bring the best out of these characters, as Jack really shines when he’s interacting with the preacher’s daughter Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) or his bromance partner Cricket (Dane DeHaan).
However, those expecting the formula picture advertised by the Weinstein Company may be disappointed to learn that events don’t work out in such a way that our protagonist learns from his mistakes and becomes the man his loved ones need him to be. If I can reproach Lawless anything in terms of its narrative, it’s that the characters aren’t given a chance to develop so much as confirm what we already know of them. In fairness, one could argue that Jack’s inner struggle doesn’t pay off in a traditional sense because real life just didn’t pan out that way.
Herein lies the drawback to “based on a true story”. I’d be remiss to praise Hillcoat’s detailed reproduction of an era, from the segregated fountains to the period-appropriate product placement, and then complain about the way recorded events unfold. Would I have liked Gary Oldman’s big-shot mob boss, Floyd Banner, to play a larger role in the plot? Of course. Did Hardy’s captivating performance (I’m reminded of Val Kilmer in 1993’s Tombstone) make me wish Forrest had defeated Rakes singlehandedly? You bet! However, history serves up more irony than catharsis, and I doubt Lawless would have been a tale worth telling if not for its fundamental absurdity.