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"LAWLESS"
(2012) (Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A brotherly trio of Prohibition-era bootleggers must contend with outsiders who try to have an impact on their business.
PLOT:
Forrest (TOM HARDY), Howard (JASON CLARKE) and Jack Bondurant (SHIA LaBEOUF) are brothers who operate as bootleggers in Franklin County, VA during Prohibition. They have a successful business, helped in part by Forrest's belief that they're invincible and the fact that the local lawmen are some of their best customers. And with city-girl Maggie (JESSICA CHASTAIN) deciding to come work for them behind the counter of their station, they even have a pretty face as the front of their operation.

Things change when the Commonwealth Attorney wants to crack down on their type and thus brings in Special Agent Charlie Rakes (GUY PEARCE) from Chicago to put an end to their illegal activities. Undeterred by that and desirous of getting out from under his older brothers' shadows, Jack takes it upon himself to deliver some moonshine to local gangster Floyd Banner (GARY OLDMAN) with friend Cricket Pate (DANE DeHAAN), and the two young men start their own offshoot business. That allows Jack the money to impress Bertha Minnix (MIA WASIKOWSKA), the daughter of the local preacher who doesn't like the young man or what he's up to.

That sentiment is shared by Rakes and he, his goons and the hired local law start cracking down on the various bootleggers. All of which leads to violent confrontations with the Bondurant brothers.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Ask most any parent what's worse than a child throwing a tantrum over something they want but have never had and they'll likely agree that it's a kid who's possessed that or some other highly desired object only then to have that thing taken away from them. Of course, the threat of such removal comes in handy when some leverage is needed to stymie an unwelcome behavior or get them to do some chore, such as cleaning their room.

Such threats obviously don't work as effectively with adults, especially those who have the resources to get around such tactics. Take, for instance, the old issue of Prohibition. Spearheaded by many organizations but particularly the Anti-Saloon League, the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcohol and alcoholic beverages was eventually outlawed by the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1919.

That didn't sit well with adults who previously enjoyed their booze, whatever the flavor, and thus led to bootlegging and the rise of organized crime in handling the distribution and sale of that. Fourteen years later, the Twenty-first Amendment repealed Prohibition, but not before untold and presumably enormous quantities of alcohol were illegally manufactured, sold and consumed by the masses.

A tiny part of that story is told in "Lawless," an adaptation of Matt Bondurant's novel, "The Wettest County in the World" a historical drama -- based on the Great Franklin County Moonshine Conspiracy -- that highlighted the moonshine operation run by his grandfather and uncles in southern Virginia during the Depression and waning years of Prohibition.

It's a gritty and occasionally graphically violent look at bootleggers (played here by Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf and Jason Clarke) determined not to let the law take away their livelihood. The latter arrives in the form of a menacing Chicago enforcer (Guy Pearce) who may look and sometimes act like what they used to call a "dandy," but isn't above literally taking the law into his own hands.

He seems formidable and, unlike the local law who are some of the bootleggers' best customers, doesn't appear likely to join them. But the brothers operate under the belief that they're invincible and director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave's adaption of Bondurant's novel makes certain to showcase the physical representation of that.

In fact, a moment where it appears the filmmakers take a somewhat daring and unusual move of seemingly killing off one of the major players turns out to be an example of the siblings' physical resiliency. While it's presumably based on fact, the severity of the act's presentation makes it hard to believe and thus runs the risk of taking viewers out of the proceedings.

So does the fact that for much of the film's nearly two-hour runtime, Pearce's lawman pretty much leaves the brothers alone. And that's despite them seemingly being public enemy number one to him and the forces that be, and that we know a showdown is inevitable. A few script tweaks explaining the delay could have gone a long way in making that more believable.

Until the big finale, Hillcoat and Cave focus mostly on LaBeouf's young upstart character, rather than the more interesting but never fully explored one embodied by Hardy. Thus, we see the youngster get too big for his britches in starting his own offshoot business and then using the spoils of his success to woo the local preacher's daughter.

That material is decent but unremarkable and certainly not novel, thus leaving much of the audience waiting for the big conclusion. Gary Oldman occasionally appears as a local gangster whose field of influence occasionally overlaps into the younger brother's world, but that material doesn't really amount too much either.

The ladies are represented by Jessica Chastain as a city woman who finds out the hard way that country life isn't any more of a picnic than what she left, and Mia Wasikowska as the aforementioned reverend's daughter who's wiser than her otherwise restrained upbringing and life would lead one to believe. But this is really just the brothers' tale and their response to the notion of having their livelihood taken away.

All of which amounts to not much more than a mediocre experience, with momentary flashes of energy and violence that will startle viewers, while a purposefully over the top performance by Pearce will either transfix viewers or have them rolling their eyes as if having consumed too much moonshine. Not as intoxicating as it likely could have been, "Lawless" rates as just a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed July 18, 2012 / Posted August 29, 2012


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