Monday, August 27, 2012

Lawless: The Moonshine Stills of Franklin County

Scarcity drives up prices.  Just ask bootleggers like the Bondurant Brothers.  The folk hero moonshiners had an intuitive grasp of economic principles sorely lacking in Washington today.  They also produced good home brew.  However, they were not the types to knuckle under when a corrupt lawman from Chicago tries to muscle in on their operation.  Since it is war he wants, the Bondurant Boys will give him one in John Hillcoat’s Lawless (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York.

Based on Matt Bondurant’s fictionalized novel about his prohibition defying forebears (colorfully titled The Wettest County in the World, as Hillcoat’s film was also known prior to its current bland moniker), Lawless transports viewers back to a time when nearly everyone in Franklin County, Virginia was involved in the illicit booze trade, one way or another.  That is western Virginia, not West Virginia, but you get the idea.  Liquor runs freely around these parts and nobody dares to bother to Bondurant Boys, until now.

Frankly, the eldest brother Forrest and middle brother Howard should have been dead long before the film opened.  Their knack for cheating death gave rise to the myth of Bondurant invincibility—a legend they start to believe.  As a result, when the highly connected Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (from Chicago, the nation’s leading producer of crooked, power-hungry government officials) announces the terms of his protection racket, the Bondurants will not play ball.  Conflict is inevitable, but the expansionist schemes of the youngest Bondurant Brother Jack only escalate the situation.  To make matters worse, the Bondurant whippersnapper’s attention is divided between business and wooing the skeptical daughter of the local Mennonite clergyman.

Not surprisingly, Tom Hardy is kind of awesome as the hardnosed Forrest Bondurant and Shia LaBeouf is kind of not as the immature Jack.  Though probably every groupthinking critic will dub the former “Bane the Bootlegger” there is something electrically charismatic about Hardy’s gruff, grunting Bondurant.  He hardly speaks in complete sentences, except when passing Biblical judgment on a rival, like Jules in Pulp Fiction, but he makes every guttural word count.  LaBeouf’s Bondurant is a different matter, truly looking like a boy among men.  It is hard to believe his brothers would let him drive the car to the store, let alone acquiesce to his reckless wheeler-dealing.

Lawless works best when focusing on its larger than life characters, like Brother Forest.  While Guy Pearce has played a fair number of workaday villains in recent years, he finally gets it right here, oozing clammy evil as well coifed sadist, Rakes.  Making the most of a near cameo role, Gary Oldman also brings a blast of energy to the film as big city gangster Floyd Banner.  While it is not nearly as showy a part, Jessica Chastain still takes a solid turn as Maggie Beauford, Forrest’s potential love interest with a scandalous past.  In fact, the rich, cinematic ensemble easily carries Lawless, overcoming its weak lead.

Like a conclusive laboratory experiment, Lawless proves Hardy, Pearce, and Oldman are movie stars, but LaBeouf is not.  Hillcoat also demonstrates a firm command of period shootouts and nicely suggests but never overplays the tall tale flavor of the Bondurant legend.  Consistently vigorous and entertaining, Lawless is ultimately a very good Prohibition action-drama, easily recommended for Bane fans and those intrigued by the era when it opens this Wednesday (8/29) in New York at the Regal Union Square and AMC Kips Bay.