‘Lawless’ takes no prisoners
It’s not often we get to see Hollywood films that are set in Virginia, let alone southwest Virginia — which is a shame, considering this region of our state is rich with history. From the coal mines to the rise of the railroad in Roanoke, the area has many stories to tell. Franklin County, known to this day as the moonshine capital of the world, is the focal point of Lawless, a dark and violent film that kept me riveted until the end credits rolled.
Lawless is a grim Prohibition-era drama that focuses on the illegal moonshine trade. Based on a true story, it follows the Bondurant brothers, three of the top moonshine producers and distributors in the area. Their lucrative business is threatened when a corrupt district attorney and an evil special agent named Charlie Rakes ride into town, demanding a cut of the profits to keep quiet about the brothers’ illegal doings. The Bondurants refuse, and violence and mayhem descend on the sleepy county.
One of the best aspects of this period piece is how well it captures the mood of its setting. As someone from Roanoke who is familiar with the backwoods parts of the region, I am pleased to report that despite shooting in Georgia, director John Hillcoat nails the look and feel of southwest Virginia. I also appreciated his portrayal of the people. Southern people are often stereotyped as ignorant hicks, but Hillcoat understands that although they may lead quiet lives, rural populations are smarter and more interesting than people give them credit for.
What elevates Lawless from its conventional gangster plot are the performances. The star-studded cast is excellent across the board. Taking a break from his insufferable whining in the Transformers films, Shia LaBeouf gives one of the best performances of his career as Jack Bondurant. Though he has his signature moments of overacting, LaBeouf brings more subtlety to his role than he has ever displayed before. I found myself caring about his character’s fate in this film more than in movies where he spends his time screaming at alien robots.
Jessica Chastain is luminous as a former dancer looking for a quiet life, and Guy Pearce is positively revolting — in a good way — as a slimy agent from Chicago. It is Tom Hardy, however, who steals the show. After seeing him as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, I was impressed by his range. His southern accent is decent, and his gruff, almost emotionless exterior makes the character of Forrest Bondurant more intriguing and complex. In a movie populated with boisterous characters, Hardy’s quiet turn is a welcome surprise.
Although not destined to be a classic, Lawless is an atmospheric and well-acted film that captures both the spirit of southwest Virginia and the grit of the people who live there.