The Weinstein Company
1 hour, 55 minutes
Tom Hardy may well be the hardest working actor you’ve never heard of. The star of this week’s moonshiner gangster epic “Lawless” has headlined at least three other major releases this year, including this summer’s “The Dark Knight Rises,” the action rom-com “This Means War,” and the surprise hit from this spring, “Warrior.”
The British native created a splash as the chameleon of “Inception,” but he’s been around for a decade, cranking out project after project, all the way back to HBO’s “Band of Brothers” and “Black Hawk Down.” In just over ten years, Hardy’s worked on over 30 film projects as well as many live theatrical productions, and next will be seen as the title character Max in the reboot of the “Mad Max” franchise, “Fury Road.”
Why isn’t he more well known? It has a lot to do with Hardy’s commitment to his craft, and his ability to disappear into a wide variety of roles. The characters from his two major films of the summer, “Dark Knight” and “Lawless,” couldn’t be more different — one a soft-spoken, sweater-wearing moonshiner with the weight of his family on his shoulders, and the other a muscle-bound, leather-clad villain with a garbled voice due to the S&M scuba-mask strapped to his face. Why wouldn’t he be recognizable?
“Lawless,” a terrible title, by the way, is the based-on-a-true-story adaptation of the historical novel, “The Wettest County in the World.” Way better title. The book, and the film, tell the tale of the Bondurant brothers, the three principal members of an extended bootlegging family in 1920s and 30s rural Virgina.
At first, business is good, the Bondurant reputation for honesty bolstered by a certain amount of self-promotion in the form of a legend concerning the brothers’ supposed invulnerability. When corrupt government agents step in and try to grab a piece of the action, however, that invulnerability will be put to the test.
“Lawless” is a good film, sticking firmly to a solid tradition of well-made gangster movies. And like the best of these films, it manages to create as much tension with family drama as it does with a shotgun. Shia LeBeouf is Jack, the youngest Bondurant and the one most eager to impress. He wants to be a big-time bootlegger and sees only the glamour and none of the horror. This is a stock character — naive, brash hothead, eager to make a name in the “business,” but Shia plays it well, and leaves most of his twitchy “Transformers” schtick at home.
Howard Bondurant, a towering bear of a man is played by Jason Clarke, who gives the bruiser a quiet sense of menace, but with a sweetness. Hardy, as Forrest, is the leader of the clan, a man whose silent brooding intensity belies his propensity for violence. Forrest wants to simply keep working — making and selling moonshine. It’s not about the money, or the excitement. For him, it’s family pride and having a trade and doing it well. What he can’t abide, however, is Special Deputy Charlie Rakes, played with ghastly and weird menace by Guy Pierce. It’s the conflict with the corrupt Rakes that sets off the war that will eventually burn everything the Bondurants hold dear.
Lest you believe “Lawless” is merely a guy’s movie, I should mention two supporting female roles to even things out. Young Mia Wasikowska is Bertha, the pious daughter of a fire-and-brimstone backwoods preacher who catches Jack’s eye. Bertha is a fine character, but, honestly, is given very little to do. Jessica Chastain, on the other hand, does a marvelous job as steely Maggie who makes an immediate and powerful connection with Forrest. Maggie isn’t given much to do, either, but Chastain makes the most of every scene she’s in.
Rounding out the supporting cast is Gary Oldman as a crazy mob enforcer, but he’s in the film for such a short time as to almost be considered a cameo.
On the whole, I was very pleased with “Lawless.” It was tense, serious, touching at times, blood-soaked at others — just what a gangster movie should be. It never really achieves greatness, however, that having much to do with an epilogue that sucks the life out of the story. The third act, as a whole, is fine, but the last few minutes are a deflated misstep.
Don’t let that spoil your enjoyment of the whole, though. “Lawless” tells an interesting story, one with rich and diverse characters, and tells it well. I miss a good gangster movie, like “The Untouchables” or Christian Slater’s “Mobsters,” which wasn’t all that good a movie, but a heck of a lot of fun. Maybe “Lawless” will spark a whole new revolution.
“Lawless” is rated R for language, violence, gruesome scenes, nudity, and sexuality.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.