The Prohibition era in America’s complicated history created a market for brewers, moonshiners, and anyone willing to transport drinking alcohol to the various speakeasies and private bars that dared sell it.
Lawless, based on the book The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, explores the perspective of the author’s grandfather Jack Bondurant (Shia Lebeouf) who, along with his two brothers, ran an illegal moonshining business out of their family-owned gas station.
With the law in their pockets, the brothers enjoy a few years of profitability until the hard-nosed and sadistic Special Deputy Charles Rakes (Guy Pearce) arrives creating a whirlwind of drama and violence.
Jack, the runt of the family, is the most sensitive of the three brothers and the one with the most to prove. Living in the imposing shadow of Forrest (Tom Hardy), a local legend and war veteran believed to be indestructible, and Howard (Jason Clarke), a physical and brash man more like Forrest, Jack has the ambition to become a larger part of operations.
What he lacks, for the most part, are the actions until a confrontation with Rakes drives him towards the edge. Jack learns a lesson from Forrest — “It is not the violence that sets men apart, all right, it is the distance that he is prepared to go.”
Jack teams up with the tech-savvy Cricket Pate (Dane DeHaan) who plays Q to Jack’s dreams of outrunning blockades by outfitting Jack’s transport vehicle with a carburetor. A partnership with Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) brings in thousands of dollars to the family, and with it, the scrutiny of the law.
Lawless’ ensemble cast, which also includes the beautiful Jessica Chastain who brings tremendous gravity to her role and Mia Wasikowska who radiates innocence without being one-note, delivers with sound performances across the board.
Hardy, who seems to have the least lines, is the most interesting character — his single-syllable grunts and audible pauses carry plenty of subtext providing the film’s most memorable moments.
The pacing of the film is fluid, and the cinematography recalls sepia-toned photographs from the early 20th century, contrasting with the film’s unexpected and brute violence, which doesn’t come across as superfluous.
Lawless is a sprawling American epic with solid storytelling that occasionally falls into lulls — a solution which calls for some additional editing.