By MICHAEL SMITH
The movie “Lawless” creates a Depression-era world where the fires from the moonshine stills can be seen high in the Virginia hills, where the liquor is as harsh as the corrupt cops and where the men are known as much for their violent actions as their solemn words.
This tough-guy period piece reminds of movies I saw often in the 1970s, but this bootlegging drama is in many ways better.
I always admired the cool magnetism of, say, Charles Bronson, but looking back, I realize how many lousy films the man made in the name of his headlining star-vehicle films.
“Lawless” makes me wonder what he would have achieved if he’d worked with better material and co-stars.
Director John Hillcoat and screenwriter/musician Nick Cave follow up their revisionist Australian Western “The Proposition” with another violent tale of myths and menacing men.
Working this time with a dynamic young-Hollywood ensemble cast, they again tell a story in a style reminiscent of Sergio Leone or Sam Peckinpah from another era.
“Lawless” is gritty and gorgeously designed and frequently a placid little movie punctuated by blasts of graphic “Tommy gun” violence and a superb soundtrack featuring Cave, as well as Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson and Ralph Stanley of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” fame.
The film presents the Bondurant brothers, based on the true story of moonshine makers who refused to back down when law enforcement demanded a cut of their profits.
Forrest (played by Tom Hardy) is the brains, as well as the brawn of the operation. Howard (Jason Clarke) is the wild-eyed backup muscle. Jack (Shia LaBeouf), the little brother, is the driver when the brothers take their jalopy, loaded with cases of Mason jars filled with hooch, into town to sell to distributors who deliver it to thirsty big-city folks during Prohibition.
But Franklin County, Va., in 1931 is a place where the sheriff doesn’t have the rule of law so much as he is a puppet of corrupt big-city law enforcers and gangsters who recognize the area as the “wettest county in the world.”
All are content to allow the illegal distilleries to brew their batches — as long as they get a taste, financially speaking.
Forrest reinforces that the Bondurants have never made such a payoff, and they never will. This stance is about to be tested like never before as oily Chicago “special deputy” Charlie Rakes is appointed to manage the area and sees the Bondurants as a bumpkin challenge.
“You hicks are a sideshow unto yourselves,” Rakes says, snickering in the face of Jack, around whom much of the action revolves, as he humiliates the young man with a beating.
As Rakes, Guy Pearce is a deliciously slimy, sadistic villain, and his facing off with Hardy’s character is priceless.
Forrest makes clear to Jack how the family will react to Rakes’ tactics: “It’s not the violence that sets a man apart. It’s the distance he’s prepared to go,” he tells the rookie. “We are survivors, and we control the fear.”
Cave’s screenplay contains many such intoxicating lines for lovers of macho movies that boil down to a test of wills.
This isn’t simply a revenge tale. There is the blood feud but also the idea of country vs. city thinking; of men operating on their principles, no matter how flawed their ideas of justice and morality; of the feeling of invincibility operating in a time of lawlessness vs. the finality of a shotgun blast.
Multiple subplots I wished had been better explored. Like the relationship between Forrest and the brother’s new barmaid played by Jessica Chastain. Or like Gary Oldman’s flashy gangster, whose style makes Jack want to don dapper clothes and drive souped-up Fords, rather than emulate his brothers’ backwoods lives.
LaBeouf is effective, as the role calls for Jack to be a naive, impetuous boy in the presence of no-nonsense men with experience in brutality. The “Transformers” star shows he knows how to take a beating.
Few actors can do as much with so little as a look or a grunt as Hardy. Sure, he was menacing as Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises,” but this combination of ferocity and heart reminds more of his standout performance in last year’s underrated “Warrior.”
Few actresses can look like they would have been a movie star in the period of this movie, but the luminous Chastain does, especially in the rich period costumes she wears.
“Lawless” is a throwback movie of moments gentle and explosive, much like the serene campfire on which one brother spits his mouthful of moonshine, creating a bonfire.