He isn’t a man so much as a presence. As soon as he steps into a room, every other occupant seems to shrink. He rarely speaks, and doesn’t need to–his eyes, burning embers beneath the shade of his hat, communicate his thoughts clearly enough. Fellow moonshiners whisper tall tales about Forrest Bondurant over campfires. Some say he can’t be killed. Tom Hardy’s performance makes you believe it.
It must have been a conscious decision on Guy Pearce’s part, then, to play the antagonist–crooked lawman Charlie Rakes–as Hardy’s exact antithesis. A vain, effeminate, perfume-soaked counterpoint to Forrest’s raw masculinity, the Special Deputy–with his bow tie, stylish gloves, slicked-back hair, and closely-trimmed eyebrows–resembles a cartoon character. He’d be comical… if he wasn’t so gleefully sadistic. When Forrest resorts to bloodshed, it’s usually to protect those he loves; that loyalty earns him the viewer’s respect. Rakes’ casual cruelty, on the other hand, evokes our baser emotions–makes us hungry for the taste of good, old-fashioned retribution.
Like two trains on a collision course, these men of violence speed toward an inevitable showdown, and caught right in the middle is Shia LaBoeuf’s Jack Bondurant–Forrest’s poor, hapless little brother. Like Goodfellas’ Henry Hill, Jack is a minnow swimming amongst sharks. He wears the gangster’s clothes, speaks the language, knows the rules of the game inside and out–but often feels more like a mascot than a major player. And when the youngest, greenest Bondurant–too squeamish to even fire a pistol–attempts to revolutionize the bootlegging business on his own initiative… well, we’re all familiar with this genre.
Lawless never asks the sorts of difficult ethical questions that made director John Hillcoat’s previous film, The Road, so memorable and harrowing. It does, however, admirably reconstruct the classic cops-and-robbers tale; whatever it lacks in moral ambiguity, it more than makes up for in suspense, action, and humor. I enjoy stories that encourage me to contemplate the nature of mankind, but some days, I just need to watch a movie that invites me to root for the outlaw.
[Originally written August 30, 2012.]