At the height of Prohibition, ambitious country boy Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf) dreams of becoming "Public Enemy #1", and reaping all the benefits that go with the gangster lifestyle. By expanding his family's moonshining business, he plots to launch a vast criminal empire while winning the heart of beautiful Amish girl Bertha (Mia Wasikowska). With his older, intimidating brother Howard (Jason Clarke) by his side, Jack has the brawn to get the job done, too. But they need a strong leader to guide them – a responsibility that falls on their eldest sibling Forrest. Stoic and stalwart, Forrest (Tom Hardy) is the kind of man who holds his cards close, and places a high value on character. Meanwhile, as the three siblings rise to power while battling treachery on both sides of the law, a mysterious woman named Maggie (Jessica Chastain) appears out of nowhere, prompting the thoughtful Forrest to question the true price of his outlaw ways.
CANNES FILM FESTIVAL:
"There’s too much rust in the pipes, maybe"¦ or lead."
So observes the gifted moonshine manufacturer in John Hillcoat’s Lawless, when he samples a new ginger-stained batch, and finds the alchemy lacking.
The throwaway line occurs midway through this Prohibition-era tale of hooch, hillbillies, and a boot-legging band of brothers that stood up to legally sanctioned shakedown. On subsequent reflection, its sentiment applies to more than just the liquid contents of a grimy mason jar, and extends to the film itself.
Hillcoat’s new collaboration with The Proposition writer/composer Nick Cave, is another type of story of kinship and consequence, and, like that film, of how one brother’s actions come to test the bonds between all three.
Where that film was a stark, Gothic Western set in regional Queensland, here the setting is Franklin County, Virginia, the so-called 'wettest county in the world’, based on the proliferation of rum-runners in its hills.
The Bondurant brothers – Forrest (Tom Hardy), Harold (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia LeBeouf) – keep themselves to themselves in Franklin County, quietly distilling a premium-strength brew, which they deliver to satisfied customers within the local community, and its constabulary.
Forrest runs the show, and keeps a set of knuckledusters stashed in his cardigan pockets, for swift and tidy conflict resolution. Howling Harold’s brute force provides additional security, especially when he’s spent the afternoon at the distillery. Jack is the family bantamweight who talks quickly and aspires to break out of his big brothers’ shadow.
The top-notch casting personifies the required checklist of competing masculine archetypes; For those who would doubt the plausibility of bloodlines between broody brickhouse Hardy and talky 'runt’ LeBeouf, there’s evidence of childhood torment that signposts the latter’s lifelong game of catch-up, to account for Jack’s diminutive frame.
Aspirational to a fault, Jack spies a market opportunity and cuts a deal with a tommy gun-toting mobster (an under-utilised Gary Oldman). The brothers’ booming trade and Jack’s snappy suits draw the eye of the corrupt Prohibition Agents, including a sinister special agent Rakes (Guy Pearce), a centre-parted dandy with seething bloodlust.
In prologue jam-packed with exposition, Cave’s screenplay has Jack explain that aside from illegal booze, the brothers also cultivate something of a reputation for invincibility, stemming from Forrest’s notoriety for escaping even the most life-threatening of scrapes.
This (relentless) signposting in Cave’s script guarantees an abundance of bone cracking, gullet-slitting and garrotting opportunities, to put that 'invincibility’ theory to the test.
Hillcoat directs with a steady pacing, with requisite tension and compounding menace, assisted from Cave’s score with Warren Ellis.
It’s a boys’ own film, save for the mostly decorative addition of Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska to the cast, as the Bonderant boys’ damaged, headstrong dames (the former an ex- fan-dancer from Chicago, relocated, inexplicably, to the backwoods of Virginia to wait tables in the brothers’ legitimate business concern).
Hardy is solid, as always (literally, and figuratively), and LeBeouf is a surprising standout, as his brother’s polar opposite. The other characterisations are all less convincing, however, especially Pearce’s pantomime villainy, which stands out for the wrong reasons; Cave’s script provides even the grunting Hardy with occasional snippets of southern lyricism, if only to fulfil genre requirements, but poor Guy gets saddled with some woeful dialogue ('Time for me to take out the garbage," he cries, in the midst of a blazing gun battle) that might serve the film better in general release than it does when in contention for the Palme d’Or .
So yes, there’s 'too much rust in the pipes', but it’s still a satisfying cocktail of gore and sentimentality. Just don’t expect the top shelf hooch.