In the early 1930s just before the end of Prohibition, the Bondurant brothers (Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke), finding themselves invincible after several close scrapes with death, run rampant in Franklin County, Virginia with their illegal bootlegging operation. When Chicago gangsters like Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) and a sinister federal agent (Guy Pearce) try to move in, the brothers become involved in an increasingly lopsided and potentially deadly turf battle. "Lawless" is a gritty, violent, and yet romanticized film based on the book The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, grandson of one of the brothers. Directed by John Hillcoat, it fits in with the likewise bleak and violent vision and great on-location footage of his other films ("The Proposition", "The Road"), but it also contains that hollowed feeling that prevented those, as it does this film, from attaining a higher level of achievement. I enjoyed all the performances, even LaBeouf's surprisingly, who is perfectly cast. With Tom Hardy, though his character is engaging, I have the same complaint I have from the "The Dark Knight Rises" in that he never lets you in to understand what makes his character tick. It's a trend in his roles that began in "Bronson", which he used successfully in successive roles, but which is now becoming a frustrating trend. Guy Pearce is a particular standout as an effete and malevolent villain and Gary Oldman, though underused has some great scenes. I also really liked the work of Mia Wasikowska, who has some really sweet scenes with Shia, and Jessica Chastain, though her romantic story with Hardy is underdeveloped. With "Lawless" Hillcoat tells a dark, brutal, and often engaging story set in the beautiful Appalachian foothills, that never really soars due to its resonanting, cavernous feel left in its wake.
note: This is not meant to slight the cast, which I really did enjoy here, but when are we gonna get some American actors to play these quintessentially American parts. Of the 7 members of the principal cast, 2 were born in the U.S. in a story set in 1930s Virginia. If that doesn't sound sirens to the state of the (young) actors in our country, I don't know what does.