Director: John Hillcoat (‘The Road,’ ‘The Proposition’)
Starring: Tom Hardy (‘The Dark Knight Rises’), Shia LaBeouf, Jason Clarke (‘Zero Dark Thirty’), Guy Pearce (‘Prometheus’), Mia Wasikowska (‘Alice in Wonderland’), Jessica Chastain (‘The Help’) and Gary Oldman
Crime westerns are often characterized with countless battles of gunfire, but are often void of true character development and diverse roles for actors to truly emotionally mature in. But the new film ‘Lawless,’ which reunites ‘The Proposition’ director and writer, John Hillcoat and Nick Cave, effortlessly intertwines the fierceness of hard-working men trying to provide for their family with their passionate desires. The gun battle instead merely acts as a backdrop and catalyst for the pain the main characters continuously feel throughout the course of the film.
‘Lawless’ is based on the true story of the infamous bootlegging Bondurant Brothers who are struggling to survive in Prohibition-era Franklin County, Virginia. The brothers include the eldest, Howard (Jason Clarke), who came home from the Great War changed, due to the fighting he had seen; Forrest (Tom Hardy), who continuously beats death with a quiet strength and visceral invincibility that have come to define him; and impressionable Jack (Shia LaBeouf), the youngest brother, whose sensitivity and emotions often dictates how he reacts to confrontation. Since jobs are scarce, the Bondurant Brothers have built a thriving business selling a popular brand of moonshine.
But the brothers’ ways are tested with the arrival of Chicago’s Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), whose corrupt ways and desire to change the balance in Virginia. The brothers’ lives are also changed when Jack’s growing ambitions and enterprises alter the balance of power between them. He elicits help from his friend Cricket (Dane DeHaan), to set up their own moonshine business. One of their customers is the notorious gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), who Jack idolizes.
The dynamic between the Bondurants is also changed when Jack begins pursing the quiet Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), the daughter of the local preacher. Forrest also starts a relationship with the secretive, exotic Maggie (Jessica Chastain), who begins working for the brothers upon her arrival in Virginia.
Based on the 2008 novel ‘The Wettest County in the World’ by Matt Bondurant, ‘Lawless’ is full of unique, strong-willed characters whose ambitions and emotions are clearly defined by the well-cast actors hired by Hillcoat. The clearly defined, original characters, from the Bondurant Brothers to the women they have come to love to the lawmen trying to control or eradicate their business, aren’t afraid to show their emotions and motivations when needed. Hillcoat rightfully and creatively didn’t just focus on the violence between the brothers and Charlie as they fought over the future of Franklin County; he also used their emotions to move the action and plot forward.
Hillcoat skillfully cast the main characters of ‘Lawless’ with actors who effortlessly assumed the identities of their respectful characters. LaBeouf embodied Jack’s need to not only prove himself, and make his own way, in his family, but in the bootlegging world as well. Jack’s maturity, and willingness to let go of his empathy in order to get ahead in the world, changes the power of balance from his brothers and his bootlegging competitors to him. His admiration for bootleggers like Floyd, interest in selling alcohol and making more money led to his unstoppable career path.
But LaBeouf also showed Jack’s persistent sensitive side and need to care for and protect other people when he began pursuing Bertha. He admired her independent spirit and the fact that she wasn’t afraid to defy her father in order to start a relationship with Jack. His protectiveness over others also showed when he went into business with Cricket, who was disfigured from a childhood case of rickets. Jack admires Cricket’s ambition to succeed in selling moonshine, even though he often faced ridicule for his appearance.
Hillcoat also made a risky move when he put Forrest in the patriarch position, despite the fact that he was middle son. But Hardy portrayed the character as being responsible and protective over his brothers and the people he cares about, even if he wasn’t always able to verbally articulate his love towards them. The actor played Forrest as always being in control, no matter what was going on around him, so that he could provide a respectable example for his brothers.
Forrest’s constant drive to be selective with how much he reveals about himself made him a perfect match for Maggie, who Chastain also played as having a real maturity but a preference to keep her true personality and past a secret. The two characters are so strong-willed, complicated and damaged that they instinctively found each other without truly speaking about their feelings.
Howard helps fill out the diversity of the Bondurant brothers by not being controlled and internal like Forrest, or ambitious and fearless like Jack; instead, he becomes obsessed with the fact that he messes everything up. The only way he knows how to take care of his younger brothers is to violently attack people who threaten them. Clarke portrays Howard as feeling the need to attack anyone who threatens his brothers because he doesn’t know how to emotionally be there for them.
Hillcoat bravely infused and focused his crime western with intelligent, diverse characters, instead of the constant bloodshed and violence that are all too common in the genre. The gunfire between the Bondurant Bothers and their enemies, particularly Charlie, skillfully became secondary to the emotional character studies of the truly different and complex characters. The strong nature of the Bondurants in ‘Lawless’ truly engages the audience to think and care about their differing personalities.
Written by: Karen Benardello