The words "Shia LaBeouf gangster movie" are enough to strike fear into any movie critic's heart and why I went into "Lawless" with less-than-lofty expectations.
I instead got smacked upside the head with an expertly made, brilliantly cast, bracingly violent Shia LaBeouf gangster movie. Who knew?
The biggest factor behind the success of "Lawless" is Australian director John Hillcoat, whose only other big screen features were his bleaker-than-bleak, underappreciated adaptation of "The Road" and an outstanding, but little-seen Aussie Western called "The Proposition."
Hillcoat's films are atmospheric, lively, unflinching and impeccably shot, and "Lawless" is no exception.
Also working in Hillcoat's favor is his creative partnership with Australian musician Nick Cave, who not only wrote music for the movie, but also wrote the screenplay (Cave also penned the script for "The Proposition.")
Cave likes to play with big, dark themes like betrayal, murder and revenge, but he also has a sneaky sense of humor that serves the movie well.
"Lawless" also features an outstanding ensemble of character actors, boasting some of Hollywood's best and brightest up-and-comers with a couple of salty greybeards mixed in for good measure.
LaBeouf has the most box-office clout of the cast as the hyperactive face of the multibillion-dollar "Transformers" franchise, but he is actually very well cast as Jack, the youngest and most ambitious of the three Bondurant brothers, who ran moonshine in rural Virginia during prohibition.
While LaBeouf might be the most recognizable, the star of "Lawless" is Tom Hardy as Jack's older brother and gang leader, Forrest. Fresh off snapping Batman's spine as Bane in "The Dark Knight Rises," Hardy delivers yet another great performance as the burly, soft-spoken and nearly indestructible Forrest.
Hardy is a star in the making who physically commands a movie screen like a young Marlon Brando. The dude has "multiple Oscar winner" written all over him.
Loosely based on a true story, "Lawless" follows the exploits of Jack, Forrest and their drunk, tough-as-nails brother, Howard (Jason Clarke). Their moonshine enterprise makes them kings of the county, but also runs them up against big city crime and corruption, mostly in the form of twisted mob enforcer Charlie Rakes (played in fine, scenery-chewing form by Guy Pierce).
Nowhere nearly as tough as his brothers, Jack tries to impress by expanding the business outside the county by striking up a deal with on-the-lamb gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman, who is brilliant as always, if not a little underused).
While the deal leads to more cash, which Jack uses to try to impress the local preacher's daughter, Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), it also leads to a whole lot of trouble raining down on the Bondurant boys.
A fascinating side character in all this is Maggie, played by 2011's breakout star Jessica Chastain. Inconsequential to the plot, Maggie shows up as a dancing girl from Chicago to whom Forrest gives the job of minding the family store.
Chastain is such a great actress she manages to make Maggie feel important to the story, especially in the opportunities she gives Hardy to show the humanity in his character. Their scenes together are electric.
Hillcoat and Cave make "Lawless" work not by focusing on the familiar story, but by taking time to develop their characters.
There is a great scene where Jack shows up at Bertha's fundamentalist church half-lit on white lighting and finds himself in the middle of a foot-washing ceremony. As Bertha begins to wash his feet the congregation half-sings, half-chants a hymn and Jack becomes so overwhelmed from the alcohol, the music and the thrill of Bertha's touch that he nearly vomits and is forced to run away from the church.
In that one haunting, hilarious, surreal moment we learn all we'll ever need to know about Jack.
This is usually the time of year to avoid the multiplex, but "Lawless" serves as a perfect bridge between the booms and bangs of the summer blockbuster season, and the prestige of Oscar season. It is a late-summer surprise worthy of your entertainment dollar.
"Lawless" is rated R for strong bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity.
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