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5/5 stars

If you’re looking for a typical action movie, Lawless is not it. There are no high-speed car chases or actors dramatically exiting exploding buildings. Instead of wearing spandex suits, the characters are dressed in petticoats and suspenders.

The film, which is based on Matt Bondurant’s novel The Wettest County in the World, gives an account of the lives of Bondurant’s grandfather and great uncles, moonshine bootleggers during the Prohibition Era.

I was fortunate enough to interview Bondurant, who explained that the story of the infamous brothers surfaced as somewhat of a surprise to his family.

“There is not much of a storytelling culture to my father’s side of the family, and a lot of these things were not talked about, ever,” he explained. “They’re these kind of quiet people.”

Nevertheless, Bondurant said he enjoyed seeing director John Hillcoat’s portrayal of his ancestors.

“This is a movie I would like even if I wasn’t related to the story at all,” he said.

I have to agree. Hillcoat has masterfully transferred Bondurant’s tale to the big screen in a raw and intense depiction.

In the midst of the Great Depression, the three Bondurant brothers — Forrest (Tom Hardy), Jack (Shia LaBeouf) and Howard (Jason Clarke) — are able to make a living bootlegging moonshine unencumbered by local law enforcement. But this oversight changes with the arrival of Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), who threatens the existence of the operation.

The brothers face successes, failures, challenges and opportunities at they endure Rake’s pursuit. They’re put to the test, physically and emotionally.

The story is tightly constructed. Hillcoat and writer Nick Cave successfully develop the characters and their relationships, which elevating the impact of events. While many action movies lack well-rounded characters, this film succeeds where others have fallen short.  The plot’s rapid pace helps balance the film’s different tones, shifting appropriately from graphic, crudely emotional scenes to moments that are comical and light.

In addition, the presence of Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a city girl in search of a quiet life, and Birtha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska), a young lady from a strict religious background, adds romance to the intense plot but doesn’t treat it like an afterthought as many action movies do. We’re exposed to the characters’ personal lives, helping us empathize with them. They’re not just criminals — they’re complex people with intense motivations.

Bondurant repeatedly conveyed his gratitude about having the story turned into a film, particularly since the writer and director “tried to stay true to the spirit of the book.” He also appreciated the actors’ performances; Clarke and LaBeouf were the two he mentioned specifically.

The acting is phenomenal and helps bring these unique characters to life. LaBeouf, Pearce and Hardy deserve special mention, while both women and Clarke also impress. LaBeouf excels particularly in his ability to adapt to the drastic changes in his character, transitioning from the inexperienced, somewhat soft little brother into the serious man, willing to do what it takes to make things right.

An older-looking, almost unrecognizable Pearce is also praiseworthy as the eerie special agent. Pearce transforms into a fantastic villain, convincing in both his mannerisms and his sometimes erratic behavior.

It’s Hardy, however, who is most impressive. The increasingly acclaimed actor provides a striking performance as the intimidating middle brother, who is allegedly  “indestructible.” His role is more about presence than dialogue, as his actions and demeanor as the stern and cold Forrest speak louder than his words. He skillfully relays his character’s comfort around danger and his social awkwardness near normalcy. Hardy is wonderful, and this rising star deserves praise for another fantastic performance that adds to his already substantial reputation.

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