We’ve seen Prohibition-era stuff out of Chicago, New York, and even Atlantic City. Add Franklin County, VA to the list. It’s the heart—or perhaps liver—of the state and in the 30’s it still looked like the frontier. Now, Lawless (2012) gives us a cast that is probably far cleaner and understandable than actually existed, but that’s Hollywood.
The Bondurant brothers, Jack (Shia LaBeouf), Forrest (Tom Hardy), and Howard (Jason Clarke), are something of a local legend in Franklin County. People think they’re invincible. Howard went off to World War I and was the only survivor of his group. Forrest also has his close calls. Jack, though, is the kind of kid who can’t even shoot a pig. They’re bootleggers, selling white lightning without any interference from the law. Jack’s got vision and, with his best buddy Cricket (Dane DeHaan), starts to sell large quantities to Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), a major outlaw. Then a new Commonwealth’s Attorney brings in a hired gun from Chicago, Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), to cut into the bootlegging business in Franklin. Things go a little hard from then on. Around the same time, Forrest hires Maggie (Jessica Chastain) to run their bar in the sticks and Jack meets the preacher’s daughter, Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), and falls instantly in love.
The performances are uniformly good. I might even say great. Even LaBeouf, though still more himself than exclusively his character, puts in solid work. Hardy is probably the best of the leads but it’s a close thing between him, Chastain, and Pearce. DeHaan, Oldman, and Wasikowska are great in their supporting roles as well. They all take full advantage of what moments their given. It’s actually rather surprising how they do so with so many strong actors to feed. The writing from Nick Cave makes it possible.
The camera work was a little eager. Like weird. The close-ups, pans, and such aren’t used to highlight events. It seemed random to me. Maybe a second viewing would alter that view, but I doubt it. Added with the conventional color scheme—that is to say, not stylized—it’s a mismatch. But John Hillcoat did well in other ways. He got a lot from the actors and let subtle things stay subtle. The pacing of the story trips up, I think, when they jump time and montage the fight between the Bondurants and Rakes. Where the bulk of most movies would lie, this one bunches into a couple minutes. Either that fight needed to be fleshed out or cut out.
But the solid story, solid dialogue, and great performances make it all okay. Cave makes the characters work—I almost said “brings them to life” but couldn’t bring myself to do it—with limited devices. Forrest mumbles (“Mm”), Jack likes nice things, Howard drinks, Rakes…has a lot going on. Upon reflection, Rakes makes the movie work by providing a strong enemy. The Bondurants are solid heroes, but their conflicts required Rakes to be a physical foe and bring the community under his thumb and he succeeds. The Commonwealth’s Attorney, Wardell (Tim Tolin), probably needed to fill his role as the man behind the curtain, but there wasn’t enough time. That is, they didn’t take the time.
Overall, this is a strong movie. There are moments of gratuitous sex and violence, some story kinks, but the actors and characters are just too good. How it survives on second or third viewings, I’m not so sure about.