You may not remember this, but way back in the day, the government made alcohol illegal for 13 years — but as you might expect, this didn’t stop people from actually drinking. But one thing it did do was magnify the criminal aspect of alcohol to ridiculous levels.
Lawless tells the story of the three orphaned Bondurant brothers who make and sell moonshine around the year 1931 in Franklin County, “The Wettest County in the World” (the name of the quasi-fictionalized book the movie is based on, written by the descendant of one of the brothers). Each brother has a role to fill in their little operation: Forrest (Tom Hardy, still at his monstrous The Dark Knight Rises weight) the leader, Howard (Jason Clarke) the crazy muscle, and Jack (Shia LaBeouf) the wheelman. But of course, Jack being much smaller and less competent than his brothers, feels out of place and without much to do. So he yearns to make something of himself and maybe flirt with Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), the daughter of a local cultish preacher.
In the meantime, creepy deputy Rakes (Guy Pearce with a ludicrous accent) arrives from Chicago to clean things up with violence and corruption of his own. There’s some additional romance between Forrest and Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a dancer from the big city who’s left for some reason. And essentially a cameo from Gary Oldman as a gangster — he’s not in the movie nearly enough. There’s plenty of low key humor and violence to go around, but the film stumbles when it tries to make you really care about the characters more than just superficially. Part of the problem is Jack, as Shia LaBeouf seems out of place with his artifice of a Southern drawl and typical slackened jaw. He’s the ostensible primary point-of-view character, but he doesn’t have the charisma of anyone else.
Tom Hardy is the real star of this movie, showing off more character and humor with monosyllabic grunts than Jack’s too common narration and wild histrionics. Maggie is a character that’s almost a real character, but suffers from lack of “what’s the point?”, although Jessica Chastain does a fine enough job. Guy Pearce plays his villainous lawman with scene chewing aplomb, and if his accent seems a bit ridiculous, his cruelty and overall creepiness works exceptionally well. The story gets a bit stuffed, although this is an artifact of adapting a much longer book. I think that perhaps Shia LaBeouf should stick to comedic roles where he isn’t vastly overshadowed by more nuanced performances — here, you keep wondering if you’re meant to laugh at him getting viciously beaten. Hard to say.
So have a drink and appreciate that you don’t to deal with the mafia for it anymore, and enjoy a decent sort of crime drama, assuming you don’t mind all the blood.