Lawless: bootlegging brilliance

Every once in a while, you’ll see a movie that shines despite having a subpar plot. Lawless is that type of movie.

Set in Franklin, Va. during Prohibition era, this tale of three bootlegging brothers is so beautifully shot and well acted that you can forgive a plot that drunkenly weaves from one act to the next.

Lawless is the story of the three Bondurant brothers – Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia LaBeouf).

Together, these three brothers embody traits that Americans find admirable: grit, determination, and loyalty. That’s why you’ll find yourself rooting for Hardy’s lumbering family patriarch Forrest as he knocks some fool’s teeth down his throat. The Bondurant boys just want to make a living, Prohibition be damned.

When the authorities storm into Franklin and demand a cut of Forrest’s profits, the man who was Bane uses the same tactic that brought Gotham to its knees: fear. Forrest tells Jack, “We’re survivors, we control the fear. And without the fear, we’re all as good as dead.”

That’s part of what makes Lawless such a rewarding watch. To see three brothers control a moonshine empire with nothing but fear and their fists is incredible.

More than that, it’s is a coming-of-age tale. Youngest brother Jack, long left out of the family trade, yearns to expand the Bondurant brand outside of Franklin. He makes mistakes along the way that any younger sibling can relate to, giving the audience a great connection to what they’re seeing onscreen.

LaBeouf, always so manic and one-dimensional in the Transformers movies, conveys Jack’s wide range of emotion quite nicely. He goes from frustrated to hopeful to elated to devastated throughout Lawless, and his journey provides the movie’s emotional heft.

While Hardy’s definitely invested in the role, Forrest is little more than a living, breathing Terminator who’s (sometimes inexplicably) used a lot of times for laughs. The movie opens with a voiceover from Jack about how Forrest is indestructible, an assertion you see tested several times during the movie’s 116-minute run time.

Clarke does a nice job as Howard, the perpetually drunk version of Forrest who’s also adept at cracking skulls but the movie’s real star is Guy Pearce as Charlie Rakes, a Chicago lawman brought in to help curb Franklin’s booming booze trade. With his slicked back hair and leather gloves, Rakes is a psychopath parading behind a badge. He sets himself up on a collision course with the Bondurant brothers, and you’ll be counting down the minutes until his rail-thin face meets Forrest’s brass knuckles.

Those expecting a blood-soaked romp through the Virginia hills will be disappointed to learn that this movie isn’t gratuitously violent. Yes, there’s bloodshed, but Lawless is a character study first and foremost, and it’s that decision that makes the movie stronger.

Though it’s not as tightly constructed as it could have been, this period piece definitely has enough punch to make it worth seeing.

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