Must-See Movie Review: 'Lawless' (2012)

"Lawless" is the tale of three brothers who make their living running an illegal moonshine operation during the height of prohibition in America and what a tale it tells. Based on the book “The Wettest Country in the World” by Matt Bondurant whose grandfather and great-uncles are depicted in the film; "Lawless" spares no gory detail or harrowing activity of their endeavor.

What makes it all the more powerful are the based on true story origins of the movie. The fascinating details of how Bondurant discovered his family’s hidden past is a movie unto itself. Director John Hilcoat ("The Proclamation") does more than depict events though; he makes these characters come alive by encompassing an atmosphere that makes everything about what transpires intimately tangible.

From the minute the opening credits roll, there is a danger that is transmitted, a feeling that this movie means business and anything can happen to anyone. Hilcoat weaves the fundamental elements that go into making an outstanding film.

Written by Nick Cave (who also composed the original music for the film) there is a lyrical quality imbued throughout and the score transports you into another world and its era. Every component plays a crucial role in successfully threading the pieces together with seldom a strand out of place.

There is an intensity that is unnerving as things abruptly occur without the gentle warnings of a heightened musical note or the clever nod of a camera's dramatic pan. Your adrenaline never gets a rest. The incessant foreboding of it all is almost painful and yet you are so enraptured, you never really get a chance to notice. 

"Lawless" is more than an action, mob, crime or historical drama. It is a character study. The movie takes careful note at the beginning to show that the Bondurant brothers are three very different men with very distinct personalities. The oldest, Howard (Jason Clarke), is a man seemingly struggling to hold on to his sanity and the youngest, Jack (Shia LaBeouf), lives in a perpetual state of fear and desperate motivation to prove himself to his older brothers.

It is middle brother Forrest (Tom Hardy), who must rise to the occasion; running the family and their business. His sanity is well intact and with a primal ferocity, he makes it clear early on that he does not submit or back down from anyone or anything.

After several near death experiences, Forrest has become convinced that he is immortal. This plays heavily into the context of the film and creates a fascinating play on the audience's emotions. Do you believe he is too? By the end of the movie, how much you have been convinced becomes apparent by the shade of your knuckles. 

The performances are what seal the deal. Billed and promoted as a starring vehicle for Shia LaBeouf, "Lawless" is more of an ensemble effort. While LeBeouf gives a great performance, his character mostly serves as the audience’s eyes into the world being portrayed; the veritable conduit into this volatile universe. He does have layers to play and he plays them well.

The problem is that after a while, his character becomes frustrating, wearing thin as he constantly makes the same mistakes over and over again; making the surrounding characters pop with greater interest.

It becomes clear from the beginning that this is Ton Hardy’s movie and it is worth watching for his performance alone. He dominates the film from the moment he steps in front of the camera. He imbues Forrest with the unspoken strengths of a tough as nails enforcer, philosopher and leader; with a quiet determination that garners admiration.

There is an electric charge whenever he is on-screen, a powder-keg of contained volatility and you can see his co-stars responding to. Some not knowing what to do; are obviously over-powered by it and others feed off of the energy.

It is as Forrest that Hardy gives what is easily 2012's best performance; creating a character that is larger than life, without needing the back-up of copious dialogue; allowing body language and facial expressions to say what goes unspoken.

Gary Oldman in a short role makes the most of an intimidating mob figure and Dane DeHaan (Chronicle) pulls at the heart strings as LaBeouf’s buddy, Cricket.

Guy Pearce eats up his devilish performance as Rakes, one of the most detestable villains in recent memory. Pearce gives a no-holds-barred portrayal of a man that is simply evil and whose demise you hasten. Jessica Chastain is yet another standout, providing great depth and sincerity to a character that in lesser hands would have run the risk of simply being reduced to a thankless love interest.

She demonstrates intelligence, wit and strength as Maggie, the only woman that you could imagine handling and endearing herself to the Bondurant brothers. She and Hardy display a now rarely seen on-screen chemistry and they put it to good use, sharing many memorable scenes. One of which has to be one of the sexiest moments that movies have seen in some time.

In the end, "Lawless" leaves an impression that really lasts. It weighs on you. It melds together an array of genres, never sticking in one place for long as its rollicking soundtrack provides the country grit of harsh times. If there is only one fault with the film, it is not focusing more on the outstanding characters that it had in its grasp. Rating: 8.8/10