Blood flows like moonshine in Lawless, the ultraviolent based-on-a-true-story about the Bondurant brothers, bootleggers in 1931 Virginia. A brief opening scene sums up the disposition of Jack (Shia LaBeouf), who as a youngster could not bring himself to shoot a pig despite his two older brothers’ urging. His siblings are Howard (Jason Clarke), much tougher, and Forrest (Tom Hardy), the toughest of them all. Forrest, after surviving some scares, actually believes he is invincible, but just in case, he refuses to let himself or his brothers even give off the scent of weakness: “Without the fear, we are all as good as dead,” he tells Jack.
Forrest is lecturing Jack—he’s always lecturing someone, even though he mainly speaks in simple sentences and grunts—because Jack got the tar beat out of him by a new, slick deputy from Chicago, Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce). Though the local authorities play nice with the moonshiners, primarily because they like to get a little hootch themselves, Rakes won’t look the other way without a cut and lets the brothers know it on his first day in town. If he’s going to crack down on anybody, however, there are bigger fish, particularly Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), the area’s primary gangster who thinks nothing of gunning down someone on a main street in daylight. Even after Jack’s beaten to a pulp, however, Forrest won’t play Rakes’ game.
Lawless was adapted by art-rocker Nick Cave from a novel by Jack’s grandson Matt Bondurant, The Wettest County in the World, and directed by John Hillcoat (The Road). Hillcoat doesn’t shy away from the story’s violence, which includes necks being snapped and sawed, scalding, and relentless punches and kicks made more brutal by sound effects. The only time he admirably shows restraint is when some goons corner Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a city woman who showed up in town looking for a quieter life and ends up tending the restaurant front that the brothers run. You know no good comes of the confrontation, but nothing is seen, and later Maggie denies that anything happened.
For all its bloodiness and thuggery, though, there are dashes of fun here, from a humor ous script (Hardy is even more grumbly than his Bane from The Dark Knight Rises) to Jack’s youthful joy when he successfully negotiates a good deal with Banner and makes the brothers rich, parlaying that money into nice suits and cars to better woo the preacher’s daughter, Bertha (Mia Wasikowska). LaBeouf shines whenever Jack is around Bertha, his eyes giddily searching her face and emitting puppy-loviness. It’s a sweet diversion from all the hooliganism.
Hardy gives a magnetic performance as Forrest, wordlessly projecting power over both his brothers and his territory. But most memorable, if unrecognizable, is Pearce, who looks alien with bleached eyebrows and slicked black hair parted down the middle. His Rakes is always in a bowtie, but he’s anything but proper, and between Rakes’ looks and his actions, it’s fair to call him a monster.
Jack flies high and expands the business, but you know what comes after that. Even though Lawless is rather predictable in its arc, it still offers a surprise at the end—or two, if you count its syrupy coda. It makes you wonder if the filmmakers had a little white lightning themselves.