Though it's based only loosely on the real-life exploits of the Bondurant brothers, Lawless has the meandering pace of a real-life story, in which not every plot thread wraps up in an important theme, and not every character's fate feels perfectly aligned with the narrative. That can be frustrating in self-important biopics or sagas about Great Important Historical Events, but it's terrific for spending more time with the loud, wily and coarsely endearing Bondurants, who turned to bootlegging during Prohibition and turned it into a family business.
Directed by John Hillcoat, who brought gothic undertones to the Australian Western The Proposition and the bleak apocalypse drama The Road, Lawless is aware of the serious consequences of all this freewheeling bootlegging-- blood flows freely and frequently, and often from our heroes-- but he loves this world of Franklin County, Virginia as much as the Bondurants do. The film is narrated in sporadic voiceover by Jack (Shia LaBeouf), the youngest Bondurant, who explains that his older brothers Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) have set up a bootlegging operation so efficient that even local law enforcement partakes in their moonshine offerings. There's a little too much telling and not showing in LaBeouf's voiceover, but the camera soon obliges, showing Forrest dispatching a would-be robber with a pair of brass knuckles, just before the title card hits the screen.
The Bondurants are intimidating but use violence sparingly, at least until the arrival of Rakes (Guy Pearce), a Chicago-based federal enforcer with crisp suits, city dialect, and a haircut so severe even Hitler probably would think it's a bit much. Rakes is determined to stamp out Franklin County's bootlegging operations, with the grudging support of the local sheriff, and the Bondurants are just as determined to evade him, setting up their stills in the woods, making direct contact with a powerful Chicago gangster (Gary Oldman, in a too-brief appearance), and turning to violence when the moment calls for it.
As the war escalates, life goes on in various ways, with Jack courting the local preacher's daughter (Mia Wasikowska) and adopting some pretensions of big-city lifestyle, Forrest kicking up a tentative romance with mysterious newcomer Maggie (Jessica Chastain), and Jack's schemes with buddy Cricket (Dane DeHaan, equally impressive here as in this spring's Chronicle) benefiting the family as often as they fail. It's all going to come to a head in a major way, of course, but the bumps along the road can be surprising, not to mention shockingly violent, and all the characters are make the meandering worthwhile. The performances are stellar down the line-- yes, even LaBeouf nicely captures Jack's boyish arrogance-- but more than that, the warm but dark family dynamic of the Bondurants is consistently engaging. They've carved out a wild world for themselves-- and one that will feel oddly quaint when Prohibition is repealed a few years later-- but man, did they make the most of it while it lasted.
Musician Nick Cave (who also co-wrote the script) provides the grim but rousing score, and Benoit Delhomme's stunning cinematography focuses on the harsh beauty of Appalachia, with some expertly assembled shots of trees somehow standing in for the entire region's menacing appeal. There are parts of Lawless that feel choppy, like Oldman's role feeling shrunk in the editing room, or the seemingly supernatural strength that Forrest possesses for no reason, other than that he's played by the same guy who was Bane. But shot through with good humor that balances out the blackness, and performances that liven up even rote plots of revenge, Lawless earns its detours and minor missteps, a late-summer surprise with unpredictable power.