Tom Hardy is the strong, often quiet Forrest Bondurant who spearheads the creation and distribution of moonshine. Jason Clarke, on the other hand, plays his loyal yet equally intimidating sidekick Howard who no matter what the cost is always there for his brother. However, this is Jack Bondurant’s story. Played by Shia Labeouf, we witness the brothers’ experiences in selling alcohol during this infamous era of American history through his eyes. It’s Jack, after all, whose journey is the most compelling as Lawless charts his rise from being the meekest of the siblings to becoming a hardened bootlegger akin to his idol: local gangster celebrity Floyd Banner, performed here by Gary Oldman.
The brothers’ business, of course, takes a dangerous turn though when it is threatened by the arrival of corrupt Special Agent Charlie Rakes, a man who doesn’t simply want to shut down the Bondurants, but is instead looking for a cut of their profits. Forrest replies to the extortion attempt with a threat of violence, instigating war between both sides of the law.
The second collaboration from director John Hillcoat and writer Nick Cave, Lawless is not the remarkable crime drama you might expect the creators of 2005’s revolutionary western The Proposition. What it is, however, is a solid, straightforward genre piece that – while never breaking new ground – always remains compelling.
The script from the multi-talented Cave is simple yet effective (at least in spite of a few unfocussed or unclear moments) guaranteeing Lawless mainstream success. He chronicles the brother’s experiences in a grizzly, bloodthirsty manner reminiscent of the lyrics on his album Murder Ballads while maintaining a focus on the sibling loyalty at the core of the story.
Hillcoat realizes Cave’s blood-soaked of vision prohibition era America with aplomb too. Not only is the aesthetic of 1920-30s America brought to life through effective set and costume design, but he also does it with a gritty eye that excellently contrasts the simple lives of Franklin County’s townsfolk with the ruthlessness of the illegal trade existing under its surface.
However, the real talking point in Lawless – an appropriate title for a story in which both sides abandon the law in pursuit of wealth – is the performances. Shia LaBeouf’s boyishness provides an intriguingly stark contrast to Tom Hardy’s intensity while Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska are also very good, though their roles as the aforementioned brothers’ love interests are not of great magnitude.
But it’s Guy Peace who steals the show. With his sinister shaven eyebrows and squeaky, sadistic giggle he’s the kind of enigmatic antagonist that might walk out of Nick Cave’s nightmares. His slimy presence fills you with dread whenever he appears in Lawless, proving he is one of cinema’s most versatile and underrated performers.
This star-studded gangster film will never reach the end of year top ten lists nor will it win awards as Lawless is rarely able to excel above the conventions of the genre. However, in spite of a few flaws in Cave’s writing, what it does it achieves to a high standard and makes for gripping, entertaining multiplex viewing.