|Like a familiar song goes, the hills of “Lawless” are alive. But the thing that keeps the Prohibition-era community of Appalachian mountain men humming in this movie isn’t music, but moonshine.
Based on “The Wettest County in World,” a 2008 historical novel by Matt Bondurant, the grandson of one of the story’s main characters, “Lawless” is the saga of three backwoods brothers and their booming bootleg whiskey business in the early years of the Great Depression.
The ruthless Bondurant boys are legendary in their region of the Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains, even rumored to be immortal, impossible to kill. Forrest (Tom Hardy of “The Dark Knight”) and Howard (Jason Clark) run their operation with brutal efficiency, paying off the local lawmen with a case or two of hooch to keep them looking the other way.
And any outsider who makes the mistake of crossing their path learns a hard, painful lesson. “I’m a Bondurant,” growls Forrest. “We don’t lay down for nobody.”
The youngest brother, Jack (Shia LaBeouf), doesn’t have Forrest or Howard’s imposing build, their fearlessness or their taste for confrontation. But he desperately wants to prove himself a capable partner, something more than just the driver of their delivery truck.
Running moonshine is a dangerous business, as we learn in the opening sequence when Forrest comes to Jack’s rescue in a dark downtown alley with a set of brass knuckles. But the danger takes a much darker turn with the arrival of a crusading “special deputy” from Chicago (Guy Pearce) on a mission to shut down the county’s bustling bootlegging trade.
It doesn’t take long to discover the detective, Charlie Rakes, is a preening peacock of a psychopath, and he’s on a fateful collision course with the Bondurants. Soon the backwoods are flowing with blood.
These are violent people living violent lives in a violent tale set in a violent place in a violent time, and this is a violent movie. It’s not for the squeamish. But the violence never seems gratuitous; it’s essential grit to a gritty story. And for all the camera shows (every sickening blow of a prolonged beating Ricks administers to Jack, or the awful beginning of a tar-and-feathering), there are other equally unsettling things that it leaves just out of view, or completely to the imagination.
The ensemble cast is uniformly strong, especially Hardy as Forrest, the Bondurant brother of few words, many grunts, and an almost animalistic drive to survive. The always-dynamic Gary Oldman is underused as a citified gangster looking to make his move into the country-bumpkin whiskey business.
Providing lovely sweet spots in the middle of all the mayhem, Jessica Chastain plays a former Chicago showgirl looking to make a new start in the sticks, and Mia Wasikowska is a preacher’s daughter who catches young Jack’s wandering eye---which eventually leads to a catastrophic showdown.
A rip-roaring saga of a family living outside the law and willing to do whatever necessary to protect their way of life, regardless of the lines they had to cross, “Lawless” certainly lives up to its name.
And, like the kickapoo hillbilly brew slow-cooking in one of the Bondurant stills, it packs a punch that may be thrilling to some, but possibly a bit too strong and unsettling for some stomachs.