From Mark Bondurant’s book “The Wettest County in the World” comes this Prohibition piece about some of that era’s most infamous bootleggers, the Bondurant brothers. Set in 1931 in Franklin County, Va., this is a rather true account of the three brothers — Howard (Jason Clarke), Forrest (Tom Hardy) and young Jack (Shia LaBeouf) — and their exploits and adventures peddling some of the tastiest moonshine ever produced.
According to Bondurant, a direct descendant of the brothers who also had a hand in the screenplay along with Nick Cave, the three entrepreneurs operated out of a quasi general store and café, which was really a front for their booming illegal liquor business. Their stills were hidden deep in the dense woods, but the local law enforcement seemed more interested in purchasing the product.
With Jack narrating the story, we get to know the family; Howard is the twitchy one, Forrest is the brains and self appointed leader, and Jack, the baby, who is not given much respect. When he witnesses Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), a big league bootlegger, machine gun down someone who wrongs him, Jack becomes enamored with his flashy style and sets up his own hugely successful moonshine business, turning the back woods operation into a huge money-making business that affords him fancy suits and expensive cars.
But everything starts to go wrong with the arrival of Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a Chicago deputy marshal sent to shut down the flow of the potent potable. What he really wants is a percentage of the profits, but the Bondurants aren’t interested in partners, a decision that starts an all-out war between the feds and the moonshiners.
Filmed in sepia tones with a beautiful feel for the period, you still get the feeling there was so much more to this that never made it to the screen. There is a macho vibe that permeates the movie with emphasis on bone crunching, bloodletting violence, which fortifies the Bondurant legend that nothing could kill them. That “nothing” includes a throat slashing, numerous vicious beatings that are difficult to watch and an epic gun battle during the denouement that leaves everyone with a few bullet holes in them.
What is there, if you can stomach the violence, is pretty good, although the characters seem rather truncated in the prestige cast. Jessica Chastain, the “it” actress of the moment, is given little to do as Maggie, a Chicago chorine who appears one day looking for a job. She slings hash and makes mooneyes at Forrest and, well, there you have it.
The most enjoyable performance is Pearce, who interprets Rakes as a pomaded dandy with a penchant for kid leather gloves in a variety of pastels, crisp pin stripe suits and a crazy nasally high pitched voice that is the equivalent of nails scraping a chalk board. He’s such a fop that when he unleashes his sadistic rage, it’s shocking.
This movie has everything going for it, particularly its authentic look and tone, but it strangely never coalesces into a solid narrative. It reels from scene to scene like the director, John Hillcoat, sampled too much of the product featured in the story. Originally the movie bore the name of Bondurant’s book, but at some point it was changed to the innocuous “Lawless,” a fitting title, but one as drab as the movie itself.