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lawless-banner-posterIt can be hard to work with family, particularly when your brothers are trigger happy moonshiners. In “Lawless” Shia LaBeouf is Jack Bondurant, the youngest, and least experienced of the three outlaw brothers.

Based on the memoir “The Wettest County in the World,” “Lawless” takes place in Franklin County, Virginia during Prohibition. The bootlegging business is booming, run by hillbillies who’ll sell to anyone with a buck and a thirst. The most notorious are the Bondurants, Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (LaBeouf). The older boys are hard as nails, reputed by the locals (and themselves) to be indestructible.  Jack is ambitious, but didn’t inherit his sibling’s way with a fist. He soon learns to put up or shut up when a corrupt lawman, Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), is imported from Chicago. Rakes wants a cut of the profits and when the stubborn Bondurants refuse, a moonshine war erupts.

It’s the hicks versus the city slickers, the battle of outlaws from both sides of the law. Australian director John “The Road” Hillcoat and writer Nick Cave (he wrote “The Proposition” for Hillcoat) present an intriguing look at the bootlegging business where the good guys aren’t always the one with badges and the bad guys rarely wear black hats.

It’s not a new idea, but the all-star cast—Gary Oldman is a bloodthirsty gangster, flame haired Jessica Chastain is a femme fatale, and “Alice in Wonderland’s” Mia Wasikowska who plays the minister’s daughter, a girl so angelic she even has a pet fawn—work past the clichés, creating vivid characters, while for the most part ignoring the stereotypes on display in most moonshine movies. There isn’t a “gol durn it” and “dag nab it” within earshot, instead Hillcoat, Cave and Company treat their characters with respect.

Hardy leads the cast as a soft-spoken thug with a brainy bent. “It’s not the violence that sets men apart,” he says, “it is the distance he is prepared to go.” When he isn’t waxing philosophical he’s tersely going about the job of being a bootlegger, and, along the way earning most of the film’s few laughs. It’s a natural, unaffected performance that really shows what he can do without a mask strapped to his face.

LaBeouf has the film’s only real character arc, maturing from timid but ambitious to cocky and vengeful. He’s at the right age to play characters stuck between being a boy and a man, and pulls it off.
The only real misstep is Guy Pearce who, while entertaining, falls just short of twirling his moustache and creeping around like the bad guy in a cheap pantomime.

“Lawless” is a violent (except for a surprisingly unconvincing gunfight near the end) but entertaining glimpse at life as seen through the prism of a jar of white lightnin’.

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