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Brothers in Bootlegging: A Review of Lawless

The dark and gritty Prohibition Era film is a solid end-of-summer movie, and it brings plenty of historical firepower to the silver screen.

8/31/2012

Highlighting the Prohibition Era, Lawless hit theaters this week and shined light on Franklin County, Va., a one-time bootlegging capitol. Starring Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke and Guy Pearce, the film is a gritty and violent tale that, while sometimes flawed, makes for a solid end-of-summer trip to the movies.

Based on true events and inspired by Matt Bondurant’s 2008 novel The Wettest County in the World, the film follows the Franklin County based Bondurant family in what would ultimately be the waning years of the Prohibition Era. The Bondurant brothers—Jack, Forrest and Howard—are the county’s foremost bootleggers and possess a deity-like reputation among the locals. That’s challenged when a Special Agent from Chicago arrives and tries to bring all of Franklin’s bootleggers—and their profits—under government control. Naturally the Bondurant family resists, and the movie’s central conflict begins.

Firearms enthusiasts may enjoy trying to identify the guns brandished by characters throughout the film—of which there are many. A few forgiveable exceptions aside, many stay true to the era.

LaBeouf’s Jack Bondurant, who begins the film as little more than the soft-spoken delivery driver for his older brothers, largely takes the lead as the story’s events begin to unfold. Being the youngest and least violent among the Bondurant clan, Jack carries a chip on his shoulder throughout much of the film as he tries to prove to his brothers that he can hack it in the family business. What Jack lacks in muscle he makes up for with ambition and an entrepreneurial mind. The downside here is that his successes lead the movie straight to the clichéd story arc of success-driven costly arrogance, which audiences see coming a mile away.

Forrest Bondurant is played by Tom Hardy—of The Dark Knight Rises fame—and is the strong, nearly silent leader of the family. Forrest is quiet and brooding, dedicating his time to keeping the bootlegging business strong and the local legends regarding the family even stronger. Hardy nails the role far more than the film’s other leads, creating a strong, believable leader that’s also relatable and at times even funny.

Howard, meanwhile, isn’t given much to do as the third Bondurant. It’s established that he’s the most violent of the trio, and he acts either as an enforcer or comic relief when he’s on screen. He largely falls in with the film’s large supporting cast—which includes Gary Oldman, who shows up for mere minutes despite being one of the biggest names in the movie.

Protagonist Special Agent Charlie Rakes (played by Guy Pearce) is one of the movie’s more polarizing characters. Rakes is meant to be the polar opposite of the Bondurant’s: He’s a suit wearing, germaphobic, socialite from the big city. He’s also violent, sadistic and obsessed with destroying the larger-than-life reputation the Bondurant brothers have constructed. He’s not handled well, however. Each appearance seems to try to hammer home both how different and unbalanced he is—again, and again and again, leading to over-the-top moments where he seems almost cartoonish in nature and out of place in such a gritty movie.

As the characters and story develop, the film hits a few snags. The plot drags at some points, and then seems to shortchange other scenes in order to make up time and move things along. The climax, in particular, seems rushed and cobbled together, and its events don’t do the consistently rising tension as much justice as they could have. The film also has a habit of glossing over the Bondurant clan’s own crimes and questionable morality, and largely seems to try to justify their actions by providing villains that sadistically trump anything our “heroes” may do.

Ultimately, Lawless has its flaws. The plot plods along for long stretches, and then hastily makes up for lost time with sequences that are often disjointed. Some of the characters get lost within the story, while others don’t quite seem to fit the film’s tone. But what the movie does well, it exceeds at. It’s dark, gritty and violent to the extreme, making it premium fare for fans of the action or gangster genres. In a summer film landscape that’s largely been about either superheroes or the supernatural, Lawless brings thing back down to Earth in a very real way.

Lawless is in theaters now. If you see it, let us know the firearms (and era follies) that you can identify.

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