During Prohibition, Franklin County, Va., earned a national reputation for its moonshine.
Illegal liquor fueled the economy (and the occasional car), while law enforcement either ignored the bootlegging or helped it along.
The Bondurant brothers were Franklin County legends, and director John Hillcoat (“The Road”) has turned their story into a gripping, if unambitious, crime drama.
“Lawless” (opening Wednesday) is narrated by the youngest Bondurant, Jack (Shia LaBeouf), whose coming of age forms the narrative backbone. Considered soft by his two older siblings, Jack is always told to wait in the truck while Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) handle the dirty work. Desperate to prove himself, Jack starts making side deals with gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), leading to a protracted showdown with a government agent (Guy Pearce) sent to keep the locals in line.
Scripted by musician Nick Cave (who also wrote “The Proposition” for Hillcoat), “Lawless” blends brutal realism with the glossy sheen of Hollywood mythmaking. The screenplay is based on the novel “The Wettest County in the World” by Jack’s real-life grandson, Matt Bondurant, and the movie is firmly on the side of the outlaws. They’re just nice boys trying to make a living, even if that means committing acts of horrific violence once in a while.
In what may be his best performance to date, LaBeouf plays Jack as a shrewd businessman whose sensitive nature can’t quite handle the gruesome realities of his job. Forrest and Howard are epic tough guys — rumors abound that Forrest is actually unkillable — but Jack couldn’t even slaughter a pig when he was a child. Hillcoat shows that incident in an opening flashback.
The supporting characters are essentially appendages to the Bondurants, including the love interests played by Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska, who both deserve better.
At least Pearce gets to enjoy himself. Special Deputy Charlie Rakes is a prissy psychopath whose biggest concern is getting blood on his nice suits when he’s beating someone to a pulp. It’s never clear why Forrest and Howard don’t go after Rakes as soon as he arrives, although they seem slightly afraid of him, too. Pearce doesn’t have the physical heft of Hardy (aka Bain in “The Dark Knight Rises”) and Clarke, but he makes up for it in explosions of pure sadism.
Rakes may or may not have been this vile in real life, but it doesn’t matter. “Lawless” is about the wild adventures of the Bondurant brothers, as they fall in love and face down their enemies. The fiction may not always match the reality, but it offers one heck of an exciting ride.