Review: Brutal 'Lawless' is a downer

By David Dizon,

Posted at Oct 29 2012 02:07 PM | Updated as of Oct 29 2012 10:07 PM

Tom Hardy and Shia LeBeouf in a scene from the drama "Lawless"

MANILA, Philippines -- Showing exclusively in Ayala Cinemas this week is "Lawless," a Prohibition-era drama by scriptwriter Nick Cave and director John Hillcoat.

“Lawless” is the true story of the brutal Bondurant brothers: three siblings who sold moonshine during Prohibition-era Virginia. Based on the book "The Wettest County in the World," the movie packs one heck of a punch -- the violence so sudden and brutal it'll leave you gasping.

There's some gorgeous cinematography here but this "hillbilly gangster Western" is so morally barren it just comes off as emotionally inert. Even worse, the movie glories in its violence that it negates anything of value in this story of moonshiners perpetrating their own myth of indestructibility.

Tom Hardy plays Forrest Bondurant, the eldest of the Bondurant brothers and manager of their small backwoods bar. Forrest sees the opportunity to earn a little extra and starts his moonshining business with brother Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia LaBeouf). Hardy's acting is all about steely-eyed stares and grunts in this movie: channeling the intelligence and violence of a young Vito Corleone if he was born in the boondocks and decided he liked to stay.

Howard is the scruffier but equally violent brother whose waking days are spent with a bottle. LaBeouf plays Jack as the everyman seduced by the easy money of bootlegging but unwilling to follow the brutal extremes of his brothers. He may be the runt of the litter but he also has the audacity to woo the preacher's daughter (Mia Wasikowska). It is Jack who tries to start his own distillery apart from his brothers, earning him a brutal beating from Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce). It is also Jack who sees Mafia boss Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) kill an opponent in broad daylight, and then cooks up a plan to become the Virginia mafia's top hooch supplier.

Jack dreams of a better future but how long before he escapes the fate of bootleggers who are tarred and tortured by the law?

Pearce turns in an unsettling performance as the Chicago lawman Rakes, a corrupt government agent with non-existent eyebrows and hair parted down the middle like a highway. Rakes may have the law on his side but he's just as brutal as the Bondurant brothers, whom he has targeted for extortion or execution. Pearce does his work maybe too well, he makes the character so completely unlikable that it borders on caricature. And everytime he's in frame, you expect him to maim, kill or torture someone just because he can.

There's a kernel of a good story here except it keeps getting lost in the way it is portrayed. Gary Oldman, the only legit gangster in "The Godfather" mode, gets exactly two to three scenes in this movie and then disappears.

Jessica Chastain has an interesting backstory as a waitress who wants to start a new life with the Bondurants even as her past keeps coming back to haunt her. She has two key scenes in this movie including one that delivers a last-minute twist that reaches for greatness but falls flat. 

And again there's all this violence -- beatings, stabbings, shootings, rape - that it left me numb. "Lawless" is a downer, no doubt, but I don't think the actors are to blame. Sometimes, some stories are better left untold.