Movie review: 'Lawless' -- 3 stars
Directed by John Hillcoat
Starring Tom Hardy, Shia LeBeouf, Jessica Chastain, Guy Pearce
"Lawless" is an end-of-summer cinematic throwback, a western-gangster movie hybrid set in 1930s Appalachia that's a welcome return to two old-fashioned, distinctly American modes of filmmaking.
In its depiction of a war that erupts when a small local business won't sell out to the colonizing big-city machine, the film adapts one of the western's iconic stories. And in its stylized portrait of machine-gun wielding men in suits, a beautiful woman on the run (Jessica Chastain) and wide-screen Depression-era vistas, it offers an engaging rural spin on the classical Hollywood gangster flick.
Set in 1931, the film from director John Hillcoat ("The Road") stars Shia LeBeouf, Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke as the Bondurant brothers, who run a lucrative bootlegging business in rural Franklin County, Va. When the brothers refuse to consent to a crackdown, Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), an import from corrupt Chicago, makes it his mission to wipe them out.
Scripted by Nick Cave, "Lawless" is a muscular flick, filled with eruptions of gruesome violence that would make the great Sam Peckinpah ("The Wild Bunch") proud. It's an entertaining, three-act drama, imbued with consistent tension that keeps you involved even when the thin, familiar plot slackens.
The Bondurants aren't the most dynamic individuals, but the actors successfully reflect the movie's hardened spirit and LeBeouf adeptly handles his Jack's transformation into a vengeance-seeking tough guy. Chastain and Mia Wasikowska, arguably the best actors in the whole movie, offer strong support as the primary women in the Bondurants' lives. But they're essentially objectified archetypes and you wish they'd been given more to do.
In the end, though, the movie really belongs to Pearce. With a gleam in his eye and a full-on embrace of some bizarre affectations, the veteran performer gives one of his most memorable performances. Joining a long tradition of effete "cultured" baddies, whose haughty attitude and dapper attire belie their sadistic nature, he's an ideal antagonist for our no-nonsense heroes.
At the same time, "Lawless" delivers a full-fledged immersion into the period. Hillcoat brings an expressive visual touch, punctuating the gore with picturesque images of mist rising over rolling fields, lush woodlands, meticulously-designed period settings and chiaroscuro-laden nighttime scenes. It's best to sit back and let him sweep you away.