Who knew moonshine could be so fun without even taking a sip?
Australian director John Hillcoat (The Road) takes Matt Bondurant's novel, adds in some remarkable performances from a mixed cast of Hollywood heavyweights and newcomers, and delivers a seamless portrayal of southern decadence and family like we haven't seen in a while.
Lawless follows the Bondurant brothers and their underground success as bootleggers in Depression-era Franklin County, Virginia. With prohibition being "strictly" enforced, the local government, including a new deputy from the big city of Chicago, is willing to turn a blind eye if the brothers deliver them a cut of the profits. The strong-willed brothers aren't the most welcoming of the town's residents and the new deputy thinks he's found a run-of-the-mill, stereotypical, Southern family. His fancy clothes and cologne aren't going to be the match he thinks they will, however.
In the midst of exciting gang joyrides and shoot-outs, it's really the relationship between each brother that stands out. Shia LaBeouf trades CGI robots for fast Model-T's and an impressive knack for showcasing his dramatic skills. His Jack, the younger brother of the brood, is the epitome of younger sibling. He's naive and innocent, while also being strong and wanting to show his brothers he has what it takes. But, it's his love for the local pastor's daughter that really drives his story, and leads us to one of the most dramatic scenes in the movie.
Hillcoat's pace and ability to develop and tell a story without rushing anything is key here. The details of the era are evident and the cinematic elements only add to it. The photography is beautiful. The sets and costumes are incredible. Though it's set in the mountains of Virginia, the film was shot locally in Georgia, aiding to the beauty and grace of the southern, gothic kudzu, dirt roads, and backwoods. The performers and bloody action sequences (especially one involving a punch in the throat) help move the film past a standard drama and into award season bait.
The performances are, for the most part, top notch. LaBeouf is stellar, taking things back to his dramatic roots. Newcomer Tom Hardy, who we saw earlier this summer in The Dark Knight Rises, sinks his teeth into his meatiest role of his career, so far, as brother/patriarch Forrest. Jessica Chastain shines in every scene she appears, almost stealing the show each time. And, Guy Pearce is delectably disgusting as the evil, grossly over-dramatic deputy whose come to town to bully and take money from the "poor southern hillbillies".
While there are still other options on the way that could take the title of "Best Movie of the Year", Lawless is a top contender at this point. It's gritty, bloody, and emotional. Southern gothic storytelling at it's best.