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By MARK TURNER
It's been years since the theme of bootleggers was the subject matter in movies. Back in the '70s there was a rush of movies about this subject, ranging from the low-budget MOONRUNNERS (the movie later turned into the hit TV series THE DUKES OF HAZARD) to the even lower budgeted MOONSHINERS. Even Burt Reynolds took on the subject in WHITE LIGHTNING. But then it kind of disappeared. That all changed when reality TV took a shine (pun intended) to the topic and the film LAWLESS is a result of that renewed interest.
Based loosely on the real life story of the three Bondurant brothers in Franklin County, Virginia, the story focuses on a short period of their lives when bootlegging was their claim to fame and the end result was what was called a war in their home county. Descendants of the real life family have written a book on the subject and that is what the film is based on.
The Bondurant brothers were legends in Franklin County. Oldest brother Forrest (Tom Hardy) was said to be indestructible, having crossed paths with death on several occasions. Middle brother Howard (Jason Clarke) has perhaps decided to dip into the family recipe too often but remains the muscle of the group. The youngest brother, Jack (Shia LeBouf) is the upstart, trying to think of ways to impress his older brother Forrest and increase the profits of their bootlegging venture.
But Forrest is content to sit back and make the money that he does from their product and pay his bribe money to the local sheriff.
All that changes when a new prosecutor comes to town. Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) is part of a task force that was sent to shut down the stills but who in truth is more interested in taking over the entire county's bootlegging business. When Forrest refuses to comply, Rakes sets out to destroy the Bondurant family in any way possible. The result is a violent and bloody confrontation that leaves Forrest wounded but alive and his brothers ready for revenge. But that is not to happen yet.
Jack decides the best way to increase their finances is to begin selling their product to Chicago gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman). With the country dry due to prohibition, Jack can get good money from the mobster in return for supplying the demand the gangsters need for their town. While the brothers may disagree on this item the money does come in handy at the right time.
Rakes' men having been behind the attack on Forrest and the brutalization of a waitress and love interest of Forrest (Jessica Chastain) that same night have left a bad taste in the mouths of the brothers. When they blow up their still and murder Jack's best friend in cold blood, a harmless young boy who had no chance of being a problem to Rakes, the brothers can take no more. An eventual showdown between the corrupt lawman and the bootleggers is inevitable. It's bloody but not overly so and the results are surprising.
LAWLESS does a great job of capturing the era and area that the film takes place in. The back hills of Virginia look beautiful rather than wasted away and yet the people who live there looks as poor as the times the story takes place in. While bootlegging may have paid the bills for poor farmers who made more money this way it was not the glamorous life that say cocaine dealers have been depicted in more modern stories. These were tough men who did what they had to to feed their families and keep their farms. The work was hard and the rewards merely enough to get by. There was no glitz and glamour here.
The acting here is stupendous. Tom Hardy turns in another dynamite performance as a man who uses few words and fewer actions yet carries the threat of violence about him like an aura. His character knows the ways of the world and tries to convey them with little success to his younger brother. LeBouf does a great job as well, depicting a hero worshipping brother who wants to do well by his family yet gets turned down more often than not. Pearce is equal to these two in depicting a bad guy that even law abiding citizens will find themselves hoping gets his due.
The movie doesn't offer a pretty picture of the bootlegging business but it does offer a few new anti-heroes for viewers to root for. You care about this family and the others who faced these problems in the past. It was a violent world that handled things much differently than they are handled today. And that makes for some tremendous storytelling that just might make viewers want to find out more and read about those times.
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