It’s my theory that almost every filmmaker possesses the desire to direct a gangster epic set in the enthralling era of prohibition. There’s just something so tantalizing about men in spiffy suits, Tommy guns, car chases and all the other good stuff that comes with the territory of a 1920’s bootlegger.
This subject and period has been explored most recently in the captivating HBO drama, “Boardwalk Empire.” Now John Hillcoat chronicles the lives of the Bondurant brothers, three siblings that hit the big time through their moonshine operation in Franklin County, Virginia. Hillcoat’s film is a consistently enjoyable crime drama with uniformly respectable performances and a kickass atmosphere. But it’s far from the most in-depth or absorbing entry to the genre.
Matt Bondurant based his 2008 novel, “The Wettest Country in the World,” on the real life stories of his grandfather and great-uncles. This film version has been branded with the name “Lawless” and stars Shia LaBeouf as Jack Bondurant. The youngest of three brothers, Jack wants to work his way up in the family bootlegging business. LaBeouf is one of those performers who may never be able to completely lose himself in a role. No matter how good or likable he is, in the back of our minds we’ll always be thinking, “Look, it’s the Disney Chanel kid.” In all fairness though, LaBeouf does give one of his more mature performances here as an inexperienced thug trying to be a major player. He’s just a little out of his league when compared to the peerless supporting performances.
If Tom Hardy proved anything as Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises,” it’s that he can convey a wide range of emotion without even saying a single word. The same can be said about Hardy’s portrayal of Jack’s older, seemingly invincible brother, Forrest. Hardy does a tremendous job at conveying a leader who’s strong and intimidating, but still understated. Jessica Chastain is evenly entrancing as Maggie, a former showgirl looking for a less hectic life. She shares several very romantic and sexy moments with the collected Forrest in one of the year’s best-matched romances. Pursuing the unlawful family is Charlie Rakes, a corrupt special agent played by Guy Pearce in an obsessive performance.
The only actor who’s somewhat underutilized is the great Gary Oldman as Floyd Banner, a hotshot mobster who sees potential in the up-and-coming Jack. Even though Oldman is only on screen for about ten minutes, he still flawlessly dominates every scene he’s in. It’s the supporting performances from Hardy, Chastain, Pearce, and Oldman that truly make “Lawless” shine. It’s kind of a shame that we have to spend a majority of the film with Jack Bondurant, the least interesting character.
Along with “Boardwalk Empire,” “Lawless” can’t help but bring Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” to mind. The problem with “Lawless” is that the film’s outlook of the crime world never feels as genuine as the perspective in “Goodfellas.” Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill was additionally a much more fascinating narrator to follow throughout this organization than Jack Bondurant. Consequently, “Lawless” never reaches the plane of craft or storytelling of a definitive gangster picture. The film is more in the league of Ridley Scott’s “American Gangster” and Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies.” That being said, those were both entertaining, solid movies, as is “Lawless.”
Nick Spake is a college student at Arizona State University. He has been working as a film critic for the past seven years, reviewing movies on his website, NICKPICKSFLICKS.com
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