Moonshiners, shovin' and lovin'

Jason Clarke (top), Tom Hardy, and Shia LaBeouf.
Jason Clarke (top), Tom Hardy, and Shia LaBeouf. (RICHARD FOREMAN JR.)
Posted: September 01, 2012

 Perhaps in 80 years they will be making beautifully crafted, beautifully acted movies - or iScreen optical implant apps - about hillbilly meth labs.

I know, cooking methamphetamine isn't the same thing as distilling whiskey in woodsheds - it's unlikely the government is ever going to legalize the stuff. And there has been a great film set in that world, although it hardly romanticizes the people living in it: Winter's Bone, which turned Jennifer Lawrence into a star.

But, in Lawless, a Prohibition saga based on the true exploits of the Bondurant brothers in Franklin County, Va., the life of mountain moonshiners looks mighty pretty, even when crime kings from the big city roll in, tommy guns a-blazin', demanding their cut.

If Bonnie and Clyde, likewise set in the hard times of the Depression, romanticized looting and shooting, then director John Hillcoat's grand but intimate adaptation of family chronicler Matt Bondurant's The Wettest County in the World can put an elegiac sheen on the task of producing and distributing grain alcohol. And then contending with corrupt cops and protection racketeers.

Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, and Jason Clarke are, respectively, Forrest, Jack, and Howard Bondurant, a close-knit band who grew up with pigs and chickens - and who grew into their legend of indestructibility. Survivors of the Spanish influenza epidemic, the Bondurants, it was said, could not be killed.

And they came to believe their own mythology. When special deputy Charlie Rakes (an enjoyably slicked-up, sinister Guy Pearce) rolls in with his badge-wearing goons - not to shut the Bondurants down, but to take control of their business - the boys don't blink. Forrest pummels a couple of the deputies with his fists, and Rakes' crew returns to exact revenge - by cutting his throat. But even with the blood gushing from his jugular, Forrest lives. (Hardy is more of a menacing physical presence in Lawless than he is, masked and maniacal, as Batman's nemesis in The Dark Knight Rises.)

Hillcoat, who turned Cormac McCarthy's The Road into a haunting apocalyptic nightmare, and also made the brilliant Australian western The Proposition, doesn't shy away from the violence and venom pushing this story along. But there is time for romance: LaBeouf's Jack, the youngest brother, woos the pretty Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), despite her father's disapproval, and Forrest lets his guard down when Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a woman with her own troubles, moves into town.

Lawless, which also stars Gary Oldman (a big-time gangster) and Dane DeHaan (Jack's boyhood friend), is a story of entrepreneurship, of family, of fighting for one's rights - the right to make white lightning, and money. It's as American as apple pie.


Lawless *** (out of four stars)

Directed by John Hillcoat. With Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Gary Oldman, Jessica Chastain, Guy Pearce, Jason Clarke, and Mia Wasikowska. Distributed by the Weinstein Co.

Running time: 1 hour, 50 mins.

Parent's guide: R (violence, profanity, sex, adult themes)

Playing at: area theaters


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies.

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