BASED on a true story, Lawless knocks back a drink with three brothers who become kings of their close-knit community by running moonshine across the state line.
Set in early 1930s Virginia and adapted from Matt Bondurant’s novel The Wettest County In The World, Nick Cave’s script corrals its fair share of rootin’ tootin’ cliches to a fine bluegrass-tinged soundtrack.
Yet, for its dramatic simplicity, John Hillcoat’s film packs a hefty punch, exploring the bonds of trust that are tested to their limit when the bootleggers are pummelled senseless by the long arm of the law.
In the mountains of Franklin County, local cops turn a blind eye to the illegal activities of Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy) and his siblings Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia LaBeouf).
The brothers run a successful bar and eke out a comfortable living by trading moonshine, made at secret distilleries maintained by Jack’s disabled pal, Cricket (Dane DeHaan).
The siblings’ business empire threatens to crumble to its foundations when sadistic Special Deputy Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce) arrives from Chicago on a mission to shut down the distilleries at the behest of District Attorney Mason Wardell (Tim Tolin).
“I’m the one who’s going to make your life real difficult from now on if you don’t toe the line, country boy,” Rakes tells Forrest.
However, the eldest Bondurant isn’t threatened and rudely dismisses the big city hotshot.
As young love blossoms between Jack and preacher’s daughter Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska), Rakes sets about dismantling the brothers’ operation from the inside, targeting weak links including dancer Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain), who has recently taken up a position as a waitress at the bar.
The subsequent, blood-spattered feud between the cop and a defiant Forrest – “We don’t lay down for nobody!” – underpins Hillcoat’s gritty Prohibition-era thriller.
Lawless pulls few punches in its depiction of the senseless violence meted out by the two sides.
A late-night attack on Forrest is particularly graphic.
Hardy delivers a brooding central performance, maintaining his stoic hardman image around Chastain’s emotionally battered love interest.
However, it’s Pearce who scorches every mud-and blood-smeared frame as a obsessive-compulsive bully who hides behind his police badge.
“Have you any idea what a Thompson sub-machine gun does to a mortal,” he giggles to one petrified cop, who believes the Bondurants to be immortal.
The Oscars love a bad guy and a Best Supporting Actor nod might well be Pearce’s reward for this simpering villainy.
Gary Oldman is underused in an eye-catching role as the suave mobster who Jack hopes to emulate.
LaBeouf’s tender romance with Wasikowska sweetens Hillcoat’s bitter pill, but don’t expect a happy ever after.
When these varmints stray beyond the point of forgiveness, death is the only absolution.