“It is not the violence that sets men apart. It is the distance that he is prepared to go.” So says Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy) in the new Prohibition-era drama, “Lawless.”
The fact-based film focuses on three brothers selling outlawed alcohol in Franklin County, Va. The intense violence may set this movie apart from much of the summer’s other fare, but “Lawless” stands out because of its great story and a cast of actors who shine in complex roles.
Although Hardy is only a supporting actor in the proceedings, he provides the heart and soul of the story and sells it more than anyone else. As Forrest, Hardy mumbles, threatens and slugs his way to success in the business of bootlegging. Of the three brothers, he’s the only one who has both the managerial skills to succeed financially and the brutal intensity to survive in the harsh world that they live in.
His older brother Howard (Jason Clarke) is the more violent of the brothers but lacks the temperance to get along with most people. Younger brother Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf) has the personal skills to run a business but looks for others to do his dirty work.
The film’s main story revolves around the three brother’s ongoing feud with Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), who arrives in town early on. At first, Rakes – who works for the Commonwealth’s new attorney – wants the brothers to pay him off so that their business can continue operating unabated. When Forrest rejects that idea – ‘I’m a Bondurant and we don’t lay down for nobody’- Rakes starts a brutal feud with the brothers.
The film’s skill lays partly in how it transitions from one story element to the next. As a bloody war is waged between the brothers and Rakes, the story also introduces us to a new mysterious woman in town (Jessica Chastain) and a minister’s daughter (Mia Wasikowska) Both women play major roles in the lives of Forrest and Jack and the scenes with the woman are handled with a sensitivity that disappears when the fighting takes center stage.
The film easily delves into complex themes about loyalty, brotherhood and violence. At times, the violence can be hard to watch, but the brutality always exists for a reason. Like in “The Sopranos,” violence isn’t seen as an unnecessary part of their lives. It exists because the brothers need it to survive.
The story — which is told in vivid detail in the book “The Wettest County in the World” – also succeeds because of its strong cast of up-and-coming actors. Director John Willcoat (“The Road”) creates an exciting world in which these characters exist in and the masterful scene-stealers Hardy, Pearce and Chastain all easily excel. LaBeouf, who is often under-estimated as an actor due to some of the lackluster roles he chooses, also does a quality job here.
“Ain’t it just like you to believe your own damn legend,” Chastain’s character notes near the end of the story speaking to Forrest. The legend of these three brothers may not be completely be accurate, but it’s a story worth telling and “Lawless” proves that by being one of the best movies of the year.