‘Lawless’ Review

Published 3 years ago by , Updated November 26th, 2014 at 6:45 pm,

Jason Clarke Shia LaBeouf Tom Hardy Jessica Chastain Lawless Lawless Review

Lawless may not entirely live up to the sum of all its celebrated parts but it succeeds in telling a riveting “true life” historical drama with plenty of entertaining and memorable characters coupled with smart filmmaking choices.

Lawless, at one point known as both The Wettest County in The World and The Promised Land, is the latest feature film from director, John Hillcoat – best known for his adaption of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The movie is an adaptation of Matt Bondurant’s 2008 based-on-true-events novel, The Wettest County in the World, which follows the author’s grandfather, as well as two great-uncles, in their illicit Prohibition-era moonshiner business activities.

In addition to a star-studded cast that includes Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Gary Oldman, and Jessica Chastain, Lawless also reunites Hillcoat with several common collaborators. Actor Guy Pearce, who previously appeared in The Proposition as well as The Road appears as the film’s primary antagonist, Charlie Rakes. Additionally, screenwriter/musician Nick Cave who acted in Ghosts … of the Civil Dead and penned The Proposition story, as well as scored the Proposition and Road soundtracks, delivers the Lawless screenplay and score. Does a sharp stable of proven talent and a best-selling Depression-era source material translate into a riveting look at the dangerous lives of the real life Bondurant Boys?

Fortunately, Lawless is another smart and engrossing adaptation from Hillcoat that successfully balances the personal Bondurant storylines with the larger Great Franklin County Moonshine Conspiracy. In spite of a few awkwardly handled “true-life is stranger than fiction” moments and a number of character arcs that don’t enjoy enough nuanced development, the movie delivers several especially engaging performances – most notably from Pearce, Hardy, and Chastain – while also making room for LaBeouf to ground his star power with a role that requires him to set-aside the hyperactive geek routine that landed him parts in blockbuster franchises like Transformers and Indiana Jones.

Jason Clarke Shia LaBeouf Tom Hardy Lawless1 Lawless Review

Jason Clarke, Shia LaBeouf, and Tom Hardy in ‘Lawless’

As mentioned, Lawless chronicles the true life events surrounding the infamous Bondurant Boys – Jack (LaBeouf), Forrest (Hardy), and Howard (Jason Clarke) – as they run an illegal moonshine business in rural Franklin County, Virginia during prohibition. The film centers primarily around the youngest of the trio, Jack, who despite his timid nature is hungry for a larger role in the family bootlegging business – all while attempting to court the local preacher’s daughter, Bertha Minnix (played by Mia Wasikowska). However, when Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Pearce) begins to squeeze Franklin County moonshiners for a percentage of their profit, no-nonsense Forrest stands firm – putting the brothers’ business practices as well as anyone loosely associated with the Bondurants in the spotlight.

There’s an odd mix of awkward moments sprinkled throughout Lawless – where “true” events are either ham-fisted into the story with cumbersome and disjointed execution or overly-embellished for the sake of the film narrative. However, distilling the larger Great Franklin County Moonshine Conspiracy historical narrative into a captivating and focused character drama is no small feat, even with a series of non-fiction plot points dotting the way, and Hillcoat (as well as Cave) largely succeed in his efforts. Considering the movie’s “real life” source material, and subsequently narrow focus (Lawless only briefly deals with big city gangster types), there’s a surprising amount of strident story material – with a number of violent moments that could make sensitive viewers pretty uncomfortable. Still, the movie never revels in the violence and each instance serves a very necessary purpose – paralleling a chief Lawless theme: intimidation is power.

Visually, the movie is in keeping with Hillcoat’s usual strengths as a director. Where other filmmakers rely on style over substance, Hillcoat once again uses a keen eye to enhance viewer immersion – this time in the rural Virginia landscape. While the grey palette featured in The Road ratcheted up the post-apocalyptic isolation in a uniform and vacuous stretch of seemingly never ending dirt and ash, the colorful and grungy aesthetic in Lawless helps mirror the highs and lows of the Bondurant story progression – as well as juxtapose other elements (race, gender, and class) in The Great Depression.

Dane DeHaan Guy Pearce Lawless Lawless Review

Cricket (Dane DeHaan) and Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) in ‘Lawless’

The core bootlegging storyline rarely falters – thanks in large part a pair of memorable performances from Pearce and Hardy. LaBeouf improves upon many of his past efforts with Jack, delivering a competent central performance – even if he’s easily outshined by a comparatively more nuanced (and more interesting) supporting cast. Pearce’s Special Agent Charlie Rakes is easily one of the most detestable antagonists that moviegoers will see all year. No audience member is likely to root for the Rakes character, given a continuous parade of brutal contributions to the proceedings, but he easily fits into the category of a villain that is charming but fully capable of embodying the unrelenting horrors of the time period. Hardy’s Forrest Bondurant manages a similar balancing act. In spite of his quiet and reserved outward appearance, Forrest is fiercely protective of his family and business. Although, where some audience members might be expecting another hard-hitting bruiser performance from Hardy (Bane, Tommy Conlon, Bronson), the Bondurant leader is a sharp mix of subtle (and sometimes not-as-subtle) reactions to the film’s various events – punctuating each with a telling grunt.

Unfortunately, while most of the supporting characters are fully realized, especially Dane DeHaan’s (Chronicle) Cricket Pate who steals a number of scenes, there are some narrative elements that get muddled along the way. The dynamic between Forrest and Maggie Beauford (Chastain) offers a few entertaining as well as sweet moments (and a good counter-balance to the Jack/Bertha romance) but takes a backseat as other plot points begin to move into the forefront. The thin Forrest/Maggie storyline would be easy to dismiss on its own but it serves as an example of a larger problem in Lawless: a lot of time is spent establishing some of the film’s most intriguing characters (and performers) who are, subsequently, largely pushed to the side – only to be shuffled into their respective real life outcomes by the end. Hillcoat was, no doubt, facing a difficult balancing act, cramming several intimate character arcs, a larger conspiracy drama, and an extensive historical context into a single film and ultimately Lawless is successful but that doesn’t mean there aren’t missed opportunities and a few vestigial threads along the way.

Lawless may not entirely live up to the sum of all its celebrated parts but it succeeds in telling a riveting “true life” historical drama with plenty of entertaining and memorable characters coupled with smart filmmaking choices. A few core story beats aren’t fully realized and there are some awkward moments of truth and fiction balancing but, nevertheless, the movie delivers a brutal and exceptionally honest look at the Bondurant Boys and their fascinating (not to mention dangerous) bootlegging days.

If you’re still on the fence about Lawless, check out the trailer below:


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For an in-depth discussion of the film by the Screen Rant team check out the Lawless episode of the SR Underground podcast.

Let us know what you thought of the film in the comment section below.

Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick for future reviews, as well as movie, TV, and gaming news.

Lawless is Rated R for strong bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity. Now playing in theaters.

Our Rating:

4 out of 5

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  1. Yes 4 stars great review Ben

    • Cheers! Glad it was useful.

  2. Color me surprised! Looks like I’ll be taking a trip to the cinema house this weekend.

  3. so Shia is not yelling “Optimus!!!!” in the whole movie?
    it will be strange to see him not doing that.

  4. does anyone give a good speech in this? I’m a sucker for a good speech. hardy looks like he was giving one to Shia in the trailer… “we are survivors, we control the fear”

    • Guy Pearce definitely gives a few speeches – Tom Hardy is more the strong silent type this round.

      • Hmm interesting but would you say even as the strong silent type he is fun to watch?

        • Definitely. He can say a lot with a simple grunt.

  5. I have been looking forward to this and a
    Ben Kendrick 4 Stars has me totally stoked.
    First class review and great setup for the film.

    • As have I. it was my number 3 most anticipated movie of the year.

    • Glad it was helpful Rob! Let me know what you think.

  6. Great review, I was on the fence about this movie but now I’m thinking I’ll go see it. And I hate to be “that” guy, but in the fifth paragraph, second sentence, you said “no small feet”, but it should be “feat”. Lol sorry man, it just bugs me. It was still a rockin’ review, though!

    • Whoops! I’m actually pretty appreciative of “that guy” – when he’s polite and helpful. Thanks Poncho!

  7. Good review. Im just wondering how you review a western from Hillcoat and Cave without mentioning The Proposition! Unless I missed it, in which case I apologize. But the Proposition is my favorite “western” in recent memory. And Pierce’s performance in it is phenominal. If this is half as good as The Proposition, I will be satisfied.

    • oops.. there it is, like 8 times in the 1st paragraph. Apparently Im an idiot. But my view on Proposition still stands!

  8. Just got back from seeing this and I really enjoyed it. From start to finish, it grabs ahold of you and doesn’t let go. Not a dull moment in the film. Guy Pearce is a hell of a villain, yes you want him to get whats coming to him! Tom Hardy and Jessica Chastain were excellent. The cinematography was gorgeous. My biggest surprise came from Shia LaBeouf. It was refreshing to see him do something a little different then what we are accustomed to seeing him do. He did very well, especially during emotional scenes. My only gripe I can think of would be that I wish there had been a little bit more of Gary Oldman. But, I understand why he wasn’t a main player in the film. Overall I loved it and I too give it a 4/5. One of the better films I have seen this year.

  9. Good review. Been looking forward to this since it was titled The Wettest Country in the World.

    • Depends on who your date is, i went with my girlfriend and she enjoyed the movie. It was admittedly very bloody and there is one scene she specifically disliked very much, but it was a very dangerous career, so it I wouldn’t say it was “overly” bloody, just showed all sides of bootlegging, including the sick and disturbing parts.

  10. I would have to say I was surprised by the movie. I thought it was going to be a bust but it really was great. Hardy and Pearce were the stars of the movie with LaBeouf providing a surprisingly great performance. The movie does remind me of The Road. It has that same “feel” to it. I agree though that it’s not a “date” movie. It has some great action scenes and the cinematography was stellar. For me it’s a 4.5 our of 5.

  11. la beouf will not play the real sex scenes in lars von triers – nymphomaniac-,he will have a bodydouble. just to that. good review,will watch it just because of hardy.

  12. A 4 star LaBouf movie… never thought I’d see that.

  13. I just got done seeing this, and man i really loved it. easily a 4 star movie. probably around and 8.4 for me. There was some faults, sometimes the pacing seemed off, and a lack of relationship development on the part of Maggie and Forest. Other than that i loved watching it, it made me cringe at times, along with laughter at others. Tom Hardy was my favorite with Guy Pearce right behind him. And Shia i am happy to say he did a really good job. Even though he was outmatched by Hardy.

  14. This was a little good movie. Shia did an excellent job & I was surprised by his performance in a good way. I didn’t expect Tom Hardy’s character to make me laugh as he did. The juxtaposition of his character and Maggie’s was perfect.

  15. Loved it! Great review, and great movie! Shia was excellent in this movie, but again Hardy has a tendency to outshine a lot of his co-workers. Great ending too, the whole time I kept saying it has to be done ( the way it was done ) that way!! 4.5 stars for me.

  16. Ben’s favorite phrase of 2012, “Story Beats.” LOL… Awesome

  17. Saw “Lawless” today; thought it was excellent. Hard to capture all the relationships and political and cultural nuances of this period, but the performances were stellar. Shia LeBeouf is an upcoming serious actor, I think. Pearce was excellent, and so were supporting actors. Very interesting period. Hillcoat could do a follow-up film and I’m sure I’d go see it!

  18. nice review. i really enjoyed this movie

  19. two words: NO BALLS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  20. One of the most underrated aspects of this movie is the soundtrack. It’s absolutely amazing and fitted well to the film. Nick Cave and drop-ins like Emmylou Harris provide great tunes that anyone with any affinity for music will enjoy.

  21. This and The dark knight rises are my 2012 faves. I am so exited to see if they come out with a lawless 2, maybe it’ll be about guns next time…