Lawless comes from a historical novel, “The Wettest County in the World.” It’s the story of three brothers in Prohibition era Franklin County, Virginia. “Forrest Bondurant” (Tom Hardy) is the family’s leader, while his brothers “Howard Bondurant” (Jason Clarke) and “Jack Bondurant” (Shia LaBeouf) follow his lead. They are in the moonshine business and “Cricket” (Dane DeHaan) has a knack for brewing up some of the best ‘shine around.
Moonshine is a big business when the film opens and there are a lot of people involved in the ‘shine trade in Franklin County.
The local cops have no issue with the Bondurants or anyone else engaged in the moonshine business until a new special deputy comes to town. “Charlie Rakes” (Guy Pearce) is from the big city and is in cahoots with a new prosecutor, “Mason Wardell” (Tim Tolin), who has designs on taking a cut from every single bottle of moonshine produced in the area that he considers his. The other bootleggers making ‘shine fall in line fairly quickly, but the Bondurants just aren’t interested in Wardell or his henchman Rakes. They don’t feel the need to share any of their hard-earned profits, and intimidated easily.
Jack wants to strike out on his own, to make something of himself, because he wants to impress a girl, “Bertha Minnix” (Mia Wasikowska). She’s the preacher’s daughter and the preacher doesn’t want this man courting his daughter. Bertha is definitely attracted to Jack, but isn’t sure what to make of his involvement in his “trade.” She seems to want a church-going, God-fearing man. In spite of that, Jack’s ability to provide a better life proves attractive to young Bertha.
Soon the Bondurants are operating a major moonshine distillery hidden in the backwoods where Rakes and his men can’t find it, and all seems to be going just fine. But there will be a reckoning between the Bondurants and Rakes and Jack ends up blamed for problems that arise.
There are three good performances in this film.
Hardy is practically perfect as Forrest Bondurant, a man with no fear of anyone else on the planet, and who expects everyone else to fear him. Quiet, soft-spoken but with a serious reserve of inner strength. Pearce is over the top as Rakes, but that’s how he was directed, how the role was written, and he does it well. And the beautiful Jessica Chastain is great as the woman who wants to be the lady behind the man in power, and will bide her time until opportunity presents itself.
But Shia LaBeouf is woefully miscast here and it shows in how he handles the part he plays. The story is alright, the action more than adequate, but you can predict much of what is going to happen and who it will happen to – even if you didn’t read the novel. With a better actor playing Jack, this could have been a real winner.