Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy) has a reputation in Franklin County, Virginia, for being invincible. It’s a reputation that, combined with a steely man-of-few-words gaze, has helped him succeed in the moonshine business he runs with his brothers, big lug Howard (Jason Clarke) and scrappy wannabe Jack (Shia LaBeouf). They run a modest business, deliver to black and white customers and sell to the generally amiable local law enforcement. But then Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) shows up, wearing the mantle of some kind of legal office but really charged with bringing all the bootleggers in the area to heel and getting a cut of their profits. Forrest isn’t having any of that, and thus begins a bloody war with Rakes and his men.
Meanwhile, Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain), a former show girl, comes to town seeking a quieter life and ends up tending bar at the Bondurant family filling station and restaurant. While Forrest isn’t a man of many words, his gazes seem to suggest that he likes her for more than just serving drinks — and Maggie’s gazes suggest the feeling is mutual.
Also meanwhile, Jack wants to be a big-shot bootlegger so badly he picks up a bullet shell as a souvenir after a shootout conducted by sharp-suit-wearing city criminal Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman). He pushes Forrest to let him do more in the operation and make the endeavor bigger. He is also trying hard to woo Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska), daughter of a local Mennonite (it appears from their dress) minister.
There’s a lot of story packed into this movie and a lot of solid acting talent as well. There are also some neat details — about the corruption of the alcohol control agents, about the tensions between local law enforcement and federal law men, about the different societies that bump up against each other in Franklin but don’t seem to interact. Lawless is full of possibility. Possibility not turned into actuality, unfortunately.
Perhaps all that story is too much. Shear off the bit about the showgirl on the run or a subplot about Jack’s friendship with Cricket (Dane DeHaan), who was crippled from rickets but has become a wiz at customizing cars with suped up engines, and maybe the movie could have gotten its arms around the core gang-versus-gang story a little better. The movie is based on a book, the historical novel The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, that is based on the author’s family. You can see the remnants of the family story-telling in the movie — I kept waiting for this character or that plot thread to tie into the bigger narrative. But if you think about the pieces of the movie — great-aunt Maggie was a showgirl in Chicago — as lore brought to life rather than part of a fully realized story, it makes sense that the movie would be choppy and characters would be introduced but never fully realized.
But while this is fine for telling a story about your ancestors at Thanksgiving, it makes for a movie that feels under-baked. C
Rated R for strong bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity. Directed by John Hillcoat with a screenplay by Nick Cave (based on the book The Wettest County in the World by Matt B ondurant), Lawless is an hour and 55 minutes long and distributed by the Weinstein Company.