Set in 1931 during the early years of Prohibition and the Great Depression, John Hillcoat’s uber-violent gangster/Western introduces the legendary Bondurants, a trio of bootlegging brothers who controlled whiskey manufacturing and distribution in Franklin County in the backwoods of Virginia.
Hot-headed Jack (Shia LaBeouf) is the youngest and serves as the narrator. Big, boozy Howard (Jason Clarke) is the oldest but he’s still shell-shocked from W.W.I so his role is, basically, that of an enforcer – which leaves the taciturn middle son, Forrest (Tom Hardy), as the brains behind the family business. Their parents died in the Spanish flu epidemic and they run a rural café/feed store/gas station that serves as a front for their moonshining operation which is disrupted by the arrival of corrupt Special Deputy Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce), who wants a share of profits generated by their particularly high-grade hooch, carefully concocted by crippled Cricket Pate (Dane DeHaan) at their secret distillery. A fastidious dandy, Rakes is a sadistic psychopath whose pastimes are rape and murder. Plus there’s notorious Chicago mobster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman). Jack’s girl-friend is a Mennonite minister’s rebellious daughter, Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska), while Forrest is involved with Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain), a former burlesque ‘dancer’ from Chicago. But the women get short-shrift insofar as screen time goes.
Adapted by musician/screenwriter Nick Cave (who contributes a fiddle/banjo score) from Matt Bondurant’s 2008 semi-biographical novel, “The Wettest County in the World,” in the hands of Australian director John Hillcoat, best known for his post-apocalyptic parable “The Road” (2009), working with cinematographer Benoit Delhomme and editor Dylan Tichenor, the crime-saga carnage emerges as a menacingly artistic Americana relic.
Despite its obvious visual merits, there’s an auditory problem with the actors’ pseudo-Appalachian accents. Tom Hardy, who growled his villainous way through “The Dark Knight Rises” with a mask covering his face, is perhaps the worst offender, sounding nothing like his moonshining ‘brothers’ Jason Clarke or Shia LeBeouf.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Lawless” is an uneven yet vividly stylishly 6, filled with brutal bloodshed.