The roaring twenties and Prohibition era has long been a focus for cinematic and television outings. With the success of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and a new adaptation of The Great Gatsby due out early next year, it looks like the infamous era will continue to live on in the twenty first century. It’s clear from the start however that Lawless is no glamorous tale of men in finery sipping moonshine in a speakeasy. Leaning more towards Boardwalk Empire than Gatsby, it presents us the ‘true’ story of the three ‘immortal’ Bondurant brothers who ran a bootlegging outfit in Franklin County, Virginia
The film is framed as a coming-of-age drama, seen through the eyes of Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf): dubbed the ‘runt of the litter’ as he hero worships big-time gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) and aspires to be more central in his brothers’ booming business. For LaBeouf it begins as a role tailor-made for him: a cocky, wise guy playing with fire. Familiar territory, but this is no Transformers or Disturbia and he does impress in his role.
The story gets its villain in Guy Pearce, doing the best he can with the pantomime-esque Agent Brakes who combs his slicked, black hair, leers at Jessica Chastain’s Maggie, wears perfume and giggles like a woman. Tom Hardy, dressed in a cardi (sorry, couldn’t resist) is the alpha male of the trio, and whilst he grunts more than he actually speaks, the Brit-of-the-moment juggles the strong silent demeanor with the violent, troubled soul more than capably. Jason Clarke is underwritten as the middle brother, tormented by war and living in Forrest’s (Hardy) shadow.
Be warned though: this is no gentle introduction to adulthood. The brutality of this film is quite startling. Whilst never reaching the gore levels of Tarantino or Rodriguez’s stylised bloodbaths, the violence in this film is striking. Broken necks, slashed throats, tarring, stabbing, shooting, castration and gang rape (unseen) all feature in this gritty tale and contrast against the sleepy country setting vividly.
Romance comes in the form of youthful puppy-dog affection between Jack and vicar’s daughter Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) and the meeting of tortured hearts with Forrest and Maggie, adding to the growing number of clichés the film swarms with. Thankfully the beautiful cinematography and talented cast make you believe there might be some originality lurking below the surface.
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