Guns are a-blazing in John Hillcoat's prohibition era back woods gangster flick LAWLESS. With a knockout cast lead by Tom Hardy, Shia LeBeouf, Guy Pearce, Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, and Gary Oldman, Hillcoat delivers a true crowd pleaser. While he doesn't push the genre into any new territory, he doesn't make any missteps either. This is a solid crime drama that is sure to find a receptive multiplex audience.
Adapted by Nick Cave from Matt Bondurant's novel The Wettest County in the World, Lawless tells the story of famous bootleggers the Bondurant boys. Forrest (Hardy) rules the roost, running the operation out of gas station restaurant, way out in the sticks. He is ruthless but fair, famous for having never backed down from a fight. Jack (LaBeouf) is the runt of the litter, but proves his worth to Forrest when he gets up the gumption to start dealing straight to Chicago gangster Floyd Banner (Oldman), greatly increasing the family's profits.
The law shows up in the form of Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Pearce), a delightfully devilish man with a mean streak that stretches clear across the county. Rakes takes it as a personal insult when Forrest rejects his offer of looking the other way for a piece of the profit, and makes it his primary objective to shut the boys down.
The story spends much of its time focusing on Jack's rise to prominence. He uses his new found wealth to court the preacher's daughter (Wasikowska), but the love story is mostly left in the background. The same is true with Forrest's affair with Maggie (Chastain) who just shows up on his doorstep one day. Neither of the females are given much character, but both have good moments and the two actresses shine as bright lights in these men's dark lives.
While the film follows the tried and true story you'd expect from a prohibition tale, it does it nearly flawlessly and is enjoyable through and through. The production design is particularly outstanding, but it is the performances where the film really stands out. Hardy, Pearce, and Oldman bring awards quality to the table, even though Oldman is criminally underused. Even Shia does well, though he is the weakest of the leads (not the worst insult with this strong of a cast around him).
The film may not bring anything new to the genre, but it certainly delivers a fun time at the movies. Time will tell if this is enough, but it isn't hard to imagine Lawless being in the awards discussion come next winter, especially given Hardy's talent (and Harvey's for that matter). Regardless, it's refreshing to find crowd pleasing butts-in-seat fun done so well.
Lawless hits theaters from The Weinstein Co. on August 31st.