September 6, 2012

'Lawless' full of rich performances


— It’s been a long time since alcohol wasn’t available in every American town, but Prohibition is still the amendment that keeps on giving good material to Hollywood.

“Lawless,” a bloody, sprawling story of bootlegging and corruption in rural Franklin County, Va., is the latest to benefit from this particular governmental misstep. It features an excellent cast, rich performances and moments of shocking violence.

Based on the novel “The Wettest County in the World” by former Plattsburgh State professor Matt Bondurant, “Lawless” tells the tale of Bondurant’s grandfather Jack and his two moonshining brothers, Forrest and Howard.

Jack — played with energy, bluster and a touch of charm by Shia LaBeouf — is the runt of the Bondurant clan, smart but impulsive, arrogant and reckless. Howard (Jason Clarke) is huge, dangerous and a little unstable.

The middle brother, Forrest (Tom Hardy), however, is the driving force behind the family and its thriving bootleg business — at least until sinister Chicago lawman Charlie Rakes is brought in to control the alcohol.

The rest of the county submits to the sadistic control of Rakes (Guy Pearce), but the Bondurants refuse, leading to an ever escalating and dangerous feud.

Hardy — the masked Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises” — is remarkably good as the terse Forrest, an imposing figure who never uses a full sentence when a single grunt will do. He’s considered indestructible after surviving brushes with war and disease, but this battle with the law will seriously test that belief.

Pearce is nearly Hardy’s match as the bad guy, a menacing but meticulous figure who loves to spill blood, as long as none of it gets on his gloved hands.

Gary Oldman makes a fleeting appearance in the film as a mobster, while the excellent Jessica Chastain (“The Help”) is underutilized as Maggie, a big-city girl looking to escape to small-town life.

Mia Wasikowska (“Alice in Wonderland”), though, breathes a little humor and romance into the story as Bertha, a preacher’s daughter who bewitches Jack.

“Lawless” tells a good, if violent, story that is never dull. It’s as satisfying as a nice, cold drink at the end of a long, hard day.

Rental Recommendation: Director John Hillcoat, screenwriter Nick Cave and actor Guy Pearce all teamed together previously in the violent Australian western “The Proposition.”

Grade: B+

Starring: Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Guy Pearce

Rated: R (for strong bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity)

Running time: 115 minutes

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