If you put an ‘F’ in front of “Lawless,” you get flawless, and while I really like this movie, flawless it is not.
“Lawless” is based on Matt Bondurant’s book “The Wettest County in the World,” the fictionalized story of his grandfather Jack, and Jack’s brothers, all of whom were moonshiners living in the mountains of Virginia during the Prohibition era.
Shia LeBeouf is Jack, the youngest and wimpiest of the three brothers. As his unnecessary voiceover tells us at the beginning, his brothers seem to be indestructible. Case in point: Forrest, a World War I vet played by Tom Hardy, was the only survivor of an attack on his platoon. Hardy, as usual, is a force. Forrest doesn’t talk a lot, but his eyes and guttural grunts are worth a page of dialogue. He’s so tough, his stare has the same physical impact as the brass knuckles he likes to employ in the worst of circumstances.
The Bondurant boys have a good thing going until Guy Pearce’s Charlie Rakes comes along — an egomaniacal, eccentric, crooked law enforcement officer from Chicago who makes instant enemies of the Bondurants. Rakes is fastidious about his appearance: perfectly manicured, hair slicked back, nary a fold or crease out of place. He carefully dons gloves before handling a gun or beating Jack Bondurant, then just as carefully removes them. Pearce excels in this role. I’m not sure if it was intentional, but his appearance is remarkably similar to Bob Geldof’s in 1982′s “The Wall,” after he shaved off his eyebrows and became “Comfortably Numb.”
Shia LeBeouf is equally as terrific as Jack. He’s truly weak when Rakes beats him down to send a message to his brothers, truly bold when making his first moonshine run to prove he has value to his brothers, and truly in love when he courts the preacher’s daughter, Bertha, played by Mia Wasikowska.
Worth honorable mentions are Jason Clark as Howard Bondurant and Jessica Chastain, who plays Maggie, a big-city dancer who moves to the mountains to get away from the big-city violence. Her storyline is one of the film’s weaknesses, but Chastain’s performance makes up for the poor and somewhat implausible character development.
At times, “Lawless” feels like you’re watching the second coming of “The Godfather,” then it suddenly transitions to “The A-Team” (the TV show, not the underrated movie based on the TV show). Some of you may think that’s fine and in a sense I do, too, because “The A-Team” had entertainment value. As for “Lawless,” It’s a little frustrating to wrangle this kind of talent with these kinds of performances, and yet wind up with a movie that’s entertaining but not nearly as special as it should’ve been.
Three-and-a-half out of five stars.