The Bondurant brothers, Howard, Forrest and Jack (Jason Clarke, Tom Hardy and Shia LaBeouf), run moonshine through the hills of Virginia in the early 1930’s. The trio is a tight-knit family who are left alone by the local sheriff thanks to a couple of cases of their best brew each week. A local politician brings in Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) from Chicago to aid in shaking down all the moonshiners in the area. If they pay a monthly protection fee, they will be allowed to operate freely. If they don’t, they will face arrest and worse from Rakes. The Bondurant boys refuse to pay. About this time, Maggie (Jessica Chastain) arrives at the family’s bar/restaurant/gas station looking for a job. She’s also from Chicago and is trying to leave her messy past behind. There is instant attraction between the strong and quiet Forrest and the world weary Maggie. Jack has eyes on Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), the daughter of a local preacher. Rakes and his tactics eventually convince all the local moonshiners to pay for protection but the Bondurant brothers still refuse leading to what can only be a violent confrontation for control of the moonshine business.
“Lawless” is two very different films competing for your affection. First is a family drama involving three very different brothers and the various characters they encounter. The second is a crime drama involving illegal liquor, corrupt cops and a great deal of violence. One aspect of the film worked far better for me than the other.
The relationship amongst the brothers is the strongest aspect of the movie. Clarke, Hardy and LaBeouf look nothing alike and possess far different physical builds and yet I enjoyed their brotherly interactions and was reminded of the way my siblings and I treated each other (only with a little less slapping). While this is hardly a “feel good” film, there’s warmth and, dare I say, love between the characters. Howard and Forrest, being older, feel protective of Jack. Forrest doesn’t want Jack to become any more involved in the business other than driving the delivery truck. He feels his little brother doesn’t have the guts to do what might be necessary to protect their endeavor. Forrest and Howard don’t mind getting their hands dirty with the blood of anyone who might interfere with their livelihood but Jack tends to cower. It requires a couple of tragedies for Jack to find the strength to do what’s necessary.
The two women who become involved with Forrest and Jack are also very different from each other but have a similar effect on their beaus. Maggie and Bertha each are able to round the rough edges off of Forrest and Jack. While they don’t tame either man, they bring out kindness in the pair that isn’t often displayed. It has the effect of humanizing two characters who could have easily been one-dimensional thugs. Another character that plays a similar role is that of Cricket played by Dane DaHaan. Cricket is a sweet young man with a gift for working on cars and stills. He’s one of Jack’s only friends and is an honorary sibling. While he’s easily convinced to do things he knows are not in his best interest, Cricket never does anything to harm another person. He’s trusting and only wants to help which leads to his eventual downfall and marks a turning point in the story.
It anything needs work in the film it’s the crime drama. While the movie requires a heavy to create tension and drive the story forward, Guy Pearce’s portrayal of Charley Rakes is an example of how not to play such a character. He’s a foppish thug who doesn’t want to be touched by any of the locals as he considers them less than human. His prim and proper appearance, apparent use of cologne and manner of dress are all visual code that his character is gay. Whether he is or not isn’t addressed and isn’t important since Rakes is such a distracting and unlikeable presence that I couldn’t wait for his scenes to end. Even a villain has to have some aspect that is relatable to the audience. Rakes is a caricature of a psychopath from a bad serial killer thriller. One has to wonder how someone like Rakes could have ever risen to a position of power without being taken down by a boss or taken out by a co-worker.
The crime story itself is rather predictable and follows a fairly obvious arc. I knew certain events were coming that would lead to the eventual showdown. The conclusion is staged in an awkward and static way that suggests the director is uncomfortable setting up action scenes.
“Lawless” is rated R for strong bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity. There are numerous scenes of bloody violence from fist fights (aided by brass knuckles), stabbings and shootings. One character gets his neck broken and another is shown after being tarred and feathered. We see topless women on three occasions but only one time could be considered sexual. Foul language is common throughout the film.
The family dynamic in “Lawless” is interesting and made me wonder where it would lead throughout the film. The crime aspect didn’t leave me wondering anything and was driven forward by a completely despicable character. It’s a shame these two storylines couldn’t have complimented each other and created a complete film.
“Lawless” gets three guitars out of five.
There are apparently no new wide-release movies coming out this week so your choices are some fairly new art house films and the re-release of a classic in IMAX. Vote for the next film I see and review.
Killer Joe—When 22-year-old Chris (Emile Hirsch) finds himself in debt to a drug lord, he stumbles on the scheme of hiring a hit man (Matthew McConaughey) to dispatch his mother, who is covered by a $50,000 life insurance policy. Then it becomes complicated.
Raiders of the Lost Ark: The IMAX Experience—Indiana Jones, archaeology professor and swashbuckling adventurer, has unearthed many an ancient treasure. But now the very future of the world depends on his finding one specific relic.
Robot and Frank—Set in the near future, Frank, a retired cat burglar, has two grown kids who are concerned he can no longer live alone. They are tempted to place him in a nursing home until Frank's son chooses a different option: a walking, talking humanoid robot programmed to improve his physical and mental health.
Stan’s Choice—Stan sees and reviews any film currently in theatres.
Release dates are subject to change and not all films may be shown in Knoxville, TN.