Lawless (2012)

Starring: Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Jason Clarke, Jessica Chastain, Guy Pearce, Gary Oldman, Mia Wasikowska, Dane DeHaan, Lew Temple

Directed by: John Hillcoat

Rating: 1 2 3 4 and a half

Tom Hardy as Forrest Bondurant in Lawless

Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy) is a legend in his own lunchtime. A rugged survivor of the Great War, he's a great, lumbering, bear of a man, gruff and monosyllabic, slow to consider but quick to act when provoked, his dowdy brown cardigans concealing animalistic brute strength and bloodied knuckledusters. Together with his brothers Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia LaBeouf) he runs a Prohibition-era moonshine operation in the hills of Franklin County, Virginia. Local folklore tells that he and his brothers are invincible, and, as he himself grunts laconically, Bondurants 'don't lay down for nobody'.

Guy Pearce as Charlie Rakes in Lawless

So when fancy dan city lawman Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce on top bad guy form, sporting a manic gleam in his eye and the nastiest haircut since Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men) breezes into town intent on shutting down the bootleg business, he finds himself up against more than he bargained for. While the rest of the town rolls over and admits defeat in the face of Rakes' corrupt, bullying and downright sadistic tactics, the Bondurants remain obdurate, even escalating their operation as young Jack, the runt of the litter desperate to prove himself, starts selling their product to big time Chicago gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman – fabulous as ever and strangely underused in the film).

Shia LaBeouf as Jack Bondurant and Mia Wasikowska as Bertha in Lawless

But while, like the last collaboration between director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave, The Proposition, Lawless centres around three brothers, it's a very different film. Yes, it has moments of stomach-churning violence, although mostly caught only in brief, bloody glimpses – the flash of a fist (and we all know nobody packs a punch like Tom Hardy), a razor blade dripping gore, a sickening crunch of bone. And yes, we do really care what happens to the characters, particularly Forrest, ex-dancer Maggie (Jessica Chastain) who sashays into the Bondurants' lives to escape from the Big City and finds herself drawn to the taciturn Forrest, Jack and his crippled, mechanical genius accomplice Cricket (Dane Dehaan, looking even more like Gilbert Grape-era Leonardo DiCaprio than he does in Chronicle).

But Lawless is a much warmer, more purely enjoyable experience than The Proposition or Hillcoat's harrowing, post-apocalyptic epic The Road. An involving family saga with moments of real humour lightening the tension of the action, it's like Once Upon A Time in America meets The Waltons, Bugsy Malone meets Deliverance, but this time we're rooting for the locals.

Great bluegrass score, convincing period detail, from unflattering hairdos to wildly inaccurate gunfire, and, yes, it's great to see Tom Hardy freed from his Bane mask (although still packing Bane's heft), channelling John Wayne as he dominates the screen, proving, as Gary Oldman does in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, that less is sometimes so much more. I'm knocking off half a star because I'd rather have had more Tom Hardy and Gary Oldman and slightly less Shia LaBeouf but otherwise I'll raise a jar of 100% proof potato whisky to Lawless. Cheers!

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