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updated: 8/29/2012 11:30 AM

'Lawless' is flawed -- but worth seeing

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  • Forrest (Tom Hardy) takes aim at law officers during a highway skirmish in the Prohibition-era crime drama "Lawless," based on a family history.

      Forrest (Tom Hardy) takes aim at law officers during a highway skirmish in the Prohibition-era crime drama "Lawless," based on a family history.

  • Jack (Shia LaBeouf), charges law officers during a highway skirmish in the Prohibition-era crime drama "Lawless," based on a family history.

      Jack (Shia LaBeouf), charges law officers during a highway skirmish in the Prohibition-era crime drama "Lawless," based on a family history.

  • Video: LAWLESS trailer

 
 

In John Hillcoat's indelicately violent Prohibition tale "Lawless," a moonshiner senses trouble, so he takes a shotgun off the wall and loads it with shells.

In another scene, a law officer produces his six-shooter and places bullets into the cylinder to prepare for a violent encounter.

Wait. What? Doesn't anybody ever keep his gun loaded?

This story takes place during the early 1930s in the hills of Franklin County, Va., where illicit moonshiners have to watch out for both the law and their back-stabbing competitors just to stay alive. Apparently, having loaded guns isn't a high priority for some characters in "Lawless," based on Matt Bondurant's 2008 fictionalized account of his ancestors' dangerous ventures in the illegal hooch business.

Granted, unloaded weaponry hardly constitutes a major flaw in a movie, but it does erode the credibility of a fact-based story that Bondurant so carefully presented.

"Lawless" has other minor quibbling issues, too, such as a voice-over narrator who won't shut up and a prissy, sadistically villainous law officer so narcissistically primped that he would make a better James Bond henchman than a cop in a cinematic ode to "Bonnie and Clyde."

Nonetheless, Hillcoat makes an impressive comeback from his mildly disappointing post-apocalyptic drama "The Road" with a rewarding mix of backwoods ambience and frequent character-defining acts of violence.

Here's a movie with the spine of an exploitation film and the pages of a fraternal domestic drama.

We meet the adult Bondurant brothers as notorious booze hawkers in 1931: the quiet Howard (Jason Clarke), a survivor of the Great War; the hulking Forrest (Tom Hardy, alias Batman's Bane), a wordlessly lethal force of nature; and Jack (Shia LaBeouf), the kid brother with big dreams and lots of voice-over narration to deliver.

By providing generous contributions to the local cop fund, the Bondurants run a profitable business with help from a likable auto mechanic named Cricket (a winning Dane DeHaan). Against Forrest's wishes, Jack branches out, selling moonshine to machine gun-toting gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman).

Profits are good. Until the arrival of dandy Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (the chameleonesque Guy Pearce), who would like the copious blood he spills even more if it didn't stain his expensive wardrobe.

The grudge match between Rakes and the Bondurants drives "Lawless," but the story also delves, although not very deep, into the pull-and-push relationships between the brothers, mostly Forrest and Jack. Howard doesn't get much screen time to flesh out his character.

Two women supply obligatory romantic subplots. Jessica Chastain plays Maggie, an attractive woman with a Chicago past. She stops in town and talks herself into a job at Forrest's quaint diner.

Mia Wasikowska plays Bertha, pious daughter of a God-fearing father, a prim and proper girl with just enough of a rebel streak to entertain Jack's awkward advances.

"Lawless," shot by cinematographer Benoit Delhomme, resembles vintage Prohibition-era movies from the '70s ("Bloody Mama," "Dillinger" and "Big Bad Mama" come to mind) and Hillcoat ups the violence to underscore the savage nature of these illegal entrepreneurs.

Curiously, while "Lawless" features some of the goriest, most squirm-inducing moments of the year -- including a slow, visceral throat-slashing -- it cuts way back on a multiple sexual assault, treating that plot element so politely that it could be broadcast on the Lifetime Channel.

"It is not violence that sets men apart," the philosophical Forrest tells his kid brother, "it is the distance that he is prepared to go."

"Lawless" isn't prepared to go too far. But far enough for sure.

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