Lawless- An atmospheric, compelling character-led prohibition drama that delivers on thrills and emotion

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By Natalie Stendall

Lawless, a moody prohibition-era thriller that delivers on both excitement and sentiment, hits UK screens this week. Based on the novel by Matt Bondurant, The Wettest Country In The World, Lawless is an account of the infamous Bondurant brothers (Howard, Forrest and Jack) and their bid to maintain control of their bootlegging business in Franklin County, Virginia.

Lawless plays heavily on the ‘legendary’ quality that surrounds the Bondurant brothers. The myth that the brothers are invincible, even immortal, is nicely referenced in the dialogue of surrounding characters. There are other ‘legends’ in Lawless too, including Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) - an invented city gangster - who inspires the youngest Bondurant, Jack, with his vision and purposefulness.

Lawless has attracted a heavyweight cast and one of its most striking aspects is its finely drawn characters. Each has their own complexities and eccentricities that have been carefully lingered on by director John Hillcoat.

Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeaouf) aspires to the success, wealth and fame of the gangster lifestyle but is far too sensitive to deal with the realities of the role. Sheltered to some degree by his elder brothers we see Jack at a turning point in his life when he must step up in the family business or back away. Of all the performances in Lawless, Shia LaBeouf’s is the most extraordinary, representing the biggest step-up in his career to date and he impresses with a considered and skillful interpretation.

Tom Hardy’s performance as Forrest, the experienced bootlegger who holds both his family and their business together, is also exceptional. Believing his own legend, Forrest is also socially awkward and unable to articulate himself. Hardy’s ability to communicate with his audience non-verbally is stunning - much of Forrest’s interactions are played out via a range of different grunts and gutteral sounds, all conveying very different meanings. Hardy skillfully draws out the vulnerable, protective side to this man who can be both brutal and vengeful, offering us something more unconventional for this type of picture.

Lawless’ supporting cast is also very strong. Gary Oldman is the business in a tommy-gun shooting spree and there’s a solid performance from relative newcomer Dane DeHaan (Chronicle) as Cricket Pate. Although arguably we don’t get to see enough of love interest Maggie, Jessica Chastain compellingly evokes her fibre and strength in every scene.

On the downside, Lawless’ main villain (Guy Pearce), a Special Deputy who wears cologne, dresses fashionably and takes a dislike to getting blood on his white leather gloves, is perhaps the most inconsistent character in Lawless - slipping between convincingly sinister and caricatural.

The visual style of Lawless is beautiful. Sweeping landscapes as the film opens are superseded only by the landscape seen once more lit by the fires of secret brewing stills. Director of photography Benoit Delhomme succeeds in creating moody and atmospheric visuals that enhance the storytelling and make Lawless a visual feast to watch.

The attention to detail in Lawless is equally compelling. The Bondurant’s are brothers that wear the evidence of troubled lives on their faces and Jack’s bloodshot eyes after he is beaten by Rakes are particularly harrowing. In Lawless, the violence of the prohibition era is not glossed over or glamorised, but is raw. This said, Lawless is not so violent as to be off-putting. The film is ultimately character led and the violence just one dimension of this well-rounded drama.

Lawless is an atmospheric, compelling character led prohibition drama that delivers on thrills and emotion. The action is both consistently believable and dark, but the real strength of Lawless lies in its character led approach - in the lingering style with which the personalities are portrayed. With outstanding performances from Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy and Jessica Chastain, accompanied by a strong supporting cast, this is a must see drama of its type. The need for a more consistently persuasive villain and a less contrived closing sequence leaves it just short of five stars. Don’t miss it.

Certificate: 18

Running Time: 115 minutes

Verdict: 5/5