Lawless isn’t a particularly consistent movie when it comes to narrative, but its characters and the actors behind them are always riveting. The main performances from Tom Hardy and Shia Labeouf are dimensional and more than just a showcase for pulpy grit. It has enough mixed personalities in the bag to keep the movie shaking, keep us entertained and unsuspecting, and most importantly, engaged.
The plot surrounds a truth-based story of the Bondurant brothers, set in the ambient and potentially over-done time of prohibition. The movie is not a blown-up picture of the TV show Boardwalk empire: It’s an atmospheric, well-lit movie with enough slow-panning shots to please the people who hated the shaky-cam of 2009’s Public Enemies. That said, the story is a bit slight, featuring nothing but a slow and determined death wish, mainly from younger brother Jack (LaBeouf), who can’t control his young and angry energy. Jack is the one brother who seems intelligent: quiet-spirited, rather small, he stands low in contrast against his two older brothers. At one point in the film, he walks in on his brothers making revenge, a lashing that Jack wanted a part of; when he sees what they are doing, it hits him hard that this isn’t a playground beating, this is a torture cell.
The authorities are obviously the main object in the brothers bootlegging path: mainly, a man from Chicago, Charlie Rakes, played frighteningly by Guy Pierce, who means to take them down at all costs. When he charges into the moonshine factory, after following Jack and his new religious bred girlfriend, Bertha, Jack stands his ground and his partner Cricket leaves with Bertha. When Jack makes it back home, with his brothers, he’s worried about Cricket, yet shows no sense of worry for the girl we spend a lot of time watching him wag his tongue over. He seems to show her a lot of affection, buying her a dress, driving her in his car, yet doesn’t even mention her or show concern if she’s alright.
Of course there is always a lack of dimension and depth when there is only one villain: we have to pour all our energy into Charlie Rakes, and be confident that he is such a snake that he would definitely act the way he is acting. It worked mainly because of Guy Pierces performance, hair parted down the middle in black grease. He was truly sinister man, and creates the often done contradiction where the smugglers don’t seem like the bad guys, but the authority does; and we want him to die, like the brothers. The movie has strong characters and acting, and the setting is enough to entertain despite a pretty limp plot.