| August 30, 2012

I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while, and it didn’t disappoint.  I wasn’t sure what to expect from Lawless, given its vague title and chaotic trailer, but the cast they’ve assembled here should be enough to pique anyone’s interest.  The story is about 3 brothers:  Forrest (Tom Hardy; The Dark Knight Rises), Jack (Shia LaBeouf; Transformers), and Howard Bondurant (Jason Clark; TV’s Brotherhood).  The Bondurants rule their small Virginia town, smuggling moonshine liquor across county lines during the depression until a new special deputy, Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce; Prometheus), comes to town to shut them down.

Based on the novel The Wettest County in The World by Matt Bondurant, who is the real life grandson of one of the brothers, Lawless very much moves like a non-fiction story; with a more chaotic structure that includes story elements that would be cut out of a fictional story in order to keep it smooth and efficient.  While watching the film, I wasn’t sure if the story was true or not.  While it’s structured like a piece of non-fiction, the story itself is so unbelievable, that it feels made up at times.  My guess was that it was fiction, but being intentionally structured in this way to make it feel more believable.  Learning afterwards that it is based on true events, I’m left wondering how much of the story is being exaggerated and sensationalized.  Not that I would have a problem if it were; it would make sense with the story and the legend of the Immortal Bondurant Brothers for the events to be slightly blown out of proportion.  Incidentally, “The Wettest County in The World” and “The Immortal Bondurant Brothers” would both be much better titles than “Lawless,” which is far too vague and generic for such an exciting film.

Again, the cast is this film’s greatest asset by far.  I’ve been a big fan of Shia LaBeouf since he was a kid working for Disney, but with each new installment of the Transformers franchise, not to mention a variety of other paycheck movies, I had started to give up hope that LaBeouf was ever going surprise me again.  However, this film, along with a recent interview in which the actor proclaimed he wasn’t interested in making big blockbusters anymore have begun to renew my faith, and I hope his career starts to resemble something he can be proud of.  His performance here is great as Jack Bondurant.  He’s the youngest brother, and the weakest, but he’s willing to do what it takes to get on equal footing with his brothers.

As good as LaBeouf is here, the real standout performances come from Tom Hardy and Guy Pearce.  These two actors embody the central theme of the film: the duality of right and wrong, noble and corrupt, brutal and civil.  This is not a film of archetypes, with one clear good guy and one clear bad guy.  The Bondurants are our heroes, but they’re criminals, while Pearce and the police are the good guys, while remaining savage and corrupt.  Emphasis on savage.  The film delights in being graphically violent.  It’s not gratuitous or needless, but can get disturbing at times.

There are a lot of fantastic smaller performances throughout the film, including Gary Oldman (The Dark Knight Rises) who’s role as the big crime boss in this world could almost be classified as a cameo, but Oldman owns the screen when he’s on it.  Also, Dane Dehann’s portrayal of Cricket, Jack’s partner, emerges as the unlikely emotional center of the film.

Hard to say if this will make my Best Films of 2012 list as there are several movies coming out that I’m looking forward to, but it’s certainly in the running.  You won’t want to miss out.

About the Author:

Joe Ketchum Joe Sanders is a podcaster, playwright, and college instructor in Kalamazoo, MI. He has a master's degree in playwriting and a bachelor's degree in creative writing from Western Michigan University, where he currently teaches thought and writing, and is the host of the Quote Unquote Guilty podcast, part of the Word Salad Network.
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