Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Running a small business always takes determination. That goes double if you're in 1920s America and your business is distilling alcohol. Based on a true story, this is Nick Cave's second tale of a trio of troubled brothers, and it'll keep you guessing just like the first. As in that film, there are corrupt lawmen aplenty, but here the corruption itself (turning a blind eye to the shipping of liquor) isn't the issue - rather, it's the viciousness of imported special agent Rakes, a foppishly dressed and, we're told, dubiously perfumed Guy Pearce. Ruthless in his pursuit of a cut of the action, Rakes is out to destroy the brothers, and the violence he brings to their backwoods Virginia community spirals out of control in classic western style.

This is a carefully balanced ensemble film that benefits from finely judged performances all round. Tom Hardy, so clumsy as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, is perfectly cast as sullen eldest brother Forrest, carrying the film in several scenes where barely a word is spoken. Forrest's survival of the war and the 1918 'flu have the locals convinced he's indestructible and this ever-inflated legend fits elegantly into the type of morality tale at which Cave is so adept. Jason Clarke is the middle brother, maybe crazy, maybe just wise to the ways he might exploit his own reputation. Then there's Shia LaBeouf as little brother Jack, finally living up to his promise. He's just right as the young hothead whose ambition outstrips his toughness and his willingness to do what we're told makes a person human - to take things as far as they need to go.

Copy picture

Alongside the brothers and their rustic ethos, there are snapshots of Chicago life. Gary Oldman is effortlessly smooth as the famous gangster local kids look up to. Jessica Chastain subverts the femme fatale role as a sophisticate-out-of-water with a secret in her past. Equally alien in these rough surroundings is Mia Wasikowska's good Christian girl, a preacher's daughter and the apple of Jack's eye. Somehow the script finds room to flesh out all of these characters and more, and none of them are quite what we expect.

Energetically paced in the style of a good yarn, this is still a film that knows when to linger. Tension is skillfully built before explosive set pieces. The violence is stomach-churningly ugly and moments of tenderness are all the more moving for it. The story has a mythic quality that is occasionally, skillfully undermined, without ever breaking our confidence in the telling. It's compelling stuff. It's also technically proficient, unshowy but impressively shot and with superb sound design. From time to time, Hillcoat throws in a piece of imagery that is staggering in both style and import only to pass it by, leaving us to wonder. This and his smattering of noirish stage-style pieces recall the early work of David Lynch, but there's a focus here on landscape as character that is all his own.

One of the darkest and yet, in a curious way, one of the most heartwarming films of the year, Lawless feels timely in its themes and timeless in its execution. If you have the stomach for it, it's not to be missed.

Reviewed on: 20 Jul 2012
Share this with others on...
Lawless packshot
Three brothers go all out to protect their small bootlegging business from corrupt lawmen during Prohibition.
Amazon link

Director: John Hillcoat

Writer: Nick Cave, based on the book by Matt Bondurant.

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

Year: 2012

Runtime: 115 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US


Search database:

Related Articles:

Making the law

If you like this, try:

True Grit