‘Lawless’ is a jug of undistilled excellence

by Kenneth Leonard

Courtesy Richard Foreman Jr.

Shia LaBeouf is a very good actor. Yeah, I said it. I’ll say it again. The guy has some serious skills. LaBeouf’s acting chops are on display in Law- less, as he transforms from meek country boy to hardened bootlegging gangster in convincing fashion.

“Lawless,” based on the novel “The Wettest County in the World,” tells the true story of the Bondurant brothers, the bootlegging trio from Prohibition-era Franklin County, VA, who refused to play ball with the corrupt law enforcement officials who attempted to extort money from their successful moonshine business.

Corruption is a major theme in this film, as the sleazy deputy Charles Rakes (Guy Pearce) ruthlessly perse- cutes the bootleggers and their loved ones, who refuse to be bullied by Rakes and his associates.

Led by hard-as-woodpecker-lips middle brother Forrest (Tom Hardy), who doesn’t so much appear on screen as smolder through scenes with unparalleled presence and intensity. The Bondurant brothers endure hardships with tenacity and grit, growing stron- ger as the rising stakes drive them to fight the powers-that-be.

And, man, let me tell you, they sure do fight. This movie is violent. (It’s not violent in that ridiculous, computer generated imagery-driven, blood splatter and gore nonsense pervading the movie industry.) No, this movie, deftly directed by JohnHillcoat, lulls the viewer into a sense of security through carefully measured cinematography and ex- pert usage of the beautiful Virginian scenery, letting you know everything is going to be just fine until a certain change of pace.

The movie crawls deliberately, until it stops doing that, and all of a sudden everything is not “just fine” anymore.

When the violence gets poured on, an explosive tsunami of brass knuckles and hillbilly rage hits the screen, leaving the squeamish audience mem- bers gasping for oxygen. This movie is definitely not appropriate for kids, or the faint of heart.

Rounding out the cast of “Lawless” are great character actors such as Gary Oldman, Jessica Chastain, and Mia Wasikowska. The cast does a terrific job, and the Brits (Hardy, Old- man, Pearce) make convincing Southerners without looking like they’reauditioning for a “Deliverance” re- make. These actors weren’t interested in perpetuating Appalachian stereo- types, and the Virginian characters maintain a dignified resilience for the duration of the narrative.

“Lawless” is very similar to an old Western, with strong-and-silent men, plucky damsels who surprise the old-fashioned guys with displays of integrity and strength, plenty of six- shooters and rugged scenery. Technically, it’s not a Western, I know. Still, the movie feels like something John Wayne or Gary Cooper would have starred in. It has a lot of heart, and as Jack Bondurant (LaBeouf, whose performance will seriously make you forget all about his prior collabora- tions with Michael Bay) undergoes various rites of passage on his path to self-empowerment, you’ll find yourself cheering for these outlaws.