Lawless: An entertaining story of bootlegging brothers in Prohibition era Virginia

Add one more to the growing list of stories about violent Appalachia in modern American pop culture. The TV mini-series "Hatfields & McCoys", the brilliant TV show "Justified", the excellent film "Winter's Bone",  the well-received book "Wettest County in the World" and now John Hillcoat's compelling, violent, if somewhat flawed film - Lawless. The Australian director has made three films so far and each has been a 'bigger' production than his last and as is to be expected I guess, his films seem to be growing less cohesive.

Hillcoat's 'The Proposition', one of my favorite movies in recent memory, is a violent, brilliant, film about outlaws in the wild West of early Australia. It is a desert lyric poem that moves you inside-out. His next, "The Road", adaptation of McCarthy's famous book, is excellent but not as great and his latest, "Lawless", based on Matt Bondurant's novel "The Wettest County in the World" is very good but easily Hillcoat's weakest. But that does not take much away.

Based on a true story (or as close to such a thing), Lawless is the story of 3 Bondurant brothers in Franklin County, Virginia. The brothers, led by their powerful elder brother Forrest, make illegal moonshine Whiskey during the Prohibition era Virginia, in the 1920s. They lead a violent, but comfortable life selling alcohol to nearby establishments until their life is threatened by changing times, a new deputy and other authorities who want to cut into their profits or cut them out.

The violent, struggle between the bootlegging gang's lead, Tom Hardy, as Forrest, and Guy Pearce, Charlie Rakes, as the new deputy from Chicago, and the collateral damage that ensues, is the key plot of the film. The underlying theme seems to go back to the Civil War - a fundamental difference between how Northern and Southern America saw (and still see) their ways of life. The concept of law and freedom, good and bad are turned over. The culture of honor that permeates these lands driving everything and everyone.

Tom Hardy plays an amazingly well controlled, bottled up, typical character, while Guy Pearce is a dandy, an overblown evil stretched to the point of being a caricature. Also interestingly cast is Shea LaBeouf, the hero of the film, if you will, who might seem miscast but is actually very well-suited for the role. Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain play their roles well, adding to a stellar cast. And they even threw a little Gary Oldman cameo as if there wasn't enough weight already.

The film is drawn out, long, moody, beautiful and brutally violent. Unfortunately, a big build-up that promises a big climax which never really comes. The film leaves you a bit vacant, searching for a purpose for the movie to exist. I guess that is not in how it ends up how it happened. It is a glimpse of an era that seems far even though the theme repeats over the centuries.