Brian Henry Martin at the movies

Gangsters Paradise

Published Thursday, 13 September 2012
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New prohibition gangster film Lawless is almost flawless. This bloody and brilliant drama about a trio of bootlegging brothers is one of the best American films of the year.

The gangster movie is as American as moonshine. Only the Western can rival movie mobsters like Jimmy Cagney, Marlon Brando or Joe Pesci for iconic greatness.

Lawless director John Hillcoat can add his hillbilly goodfellas, the Bondurant brothers, Jack, Forrest, and Howard to that most wanted list of big screen gangsters. But these wily wise guys are seasoned with a uniquely Australian sensibility that works a dark treat.

Queensland born director Hillcoat teams up once again with Australian music legend and screenwriter Nick Cave. If you have seen their previous collaboration, The Proposition, then you will know that you are in for a brooding and brutal big boys adventure.

Lawless is adapted by Cave from the 2008 novel The Wettest County In The World. (And no, it is not set in County Fermanagh.) Matt Bondurant's book is based on the real life exploits of his grandfather Jack Bondurant and his siblings Forrest and Howard, a shady band of brothers in Franklin County, Virginia. The year is 1931,"These are dangerous times" explains Jack Bondurant (played by Shia LaBeouf) "the sale of alcohol is illegal, well it's supposed to be. Me and my brothers are moonshiners."

Joining Jack in the family's illicit business are big brothers Howard (played by Jason Clarke) the brawn of the operation and Forrest (Tom Hardy), the brains. How refreshing to see actor Tom Hardy's mouth again, free from that ludicrous Bain muzzle of The Dark Knight Rises. He is certainly one of the most impressive actors working in film today. Not only can Hardy pull off the rare sight of wearing a cardigan over a jumper but without saying a word he is a captivating presence on screen.

The Bondurant's rule the roost in the bootleg mountains of Virginia and even have time for 'makin whoopee', Jack with preachers daughter Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) and Forrest with classy barmaid Maggie (played by Jessica Chastain.) However, despite their invincible reputation, the Bondurant's black market world is about to be turned upside down by the arrival of city slicker FBI agent Charlie Rakes (brilliantly played by Guy Pearce.) "Do you have any idea what a Thompson sub machine gun does to a mortal?" asks Rakes as he leaves a trail of brutal destruction and savage violence in his wake.

Lawless is not for the faint-hearted. Ironically for a film about prohibition, you may be advised to have a stiff drink before watching. This is a cutthroat world and in one chilling scene I quite literally grabbed onto my own neck for dear life. However, probably the most disturbing sight in the whole movie is Guy Pearce's greasy middle parting. His Charlie Rakes is a prancing psychopath; perhaps the most disturbing since the child-catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and one that is sure to garner Pearce Best Supporting Actor awards. This is not scene stealing but outright film robbery.

If Lawless has a flaw it's simply that it has too many colourful characters and therefore hard for us to know at points who to follow. Like Gary Oldman, whose pin striped and pencil mustached gangster, Floyd Banner, flits in and out of the story.

Only in the final third does Lawless become Jack Bondurant's film, which after his own boom and bust leads to the climatic showdown on the mountain. Shia Lebeouf, who has previously under whelmed in a series of mediocre films, excels. Which is no mean feat when you are constantly being trumped by Hardy, Pearce and Oldman.

The period detail by Hillcoat is divine and the soundtrack by Cave sublime. What is fondly remembered as The Great Franklin County Moonshine Conspiracy makes a mighty fine film and one not to miss.

Lawless (Cert 18) is currently on general release.

© UTV News
B. H. Martin
B. H. Martin

Brian Henry Martin is an accomplished documentary filmmaker and UTV's resident film critic, appearing regularly on UTV Live Tonight.

No matter what the film, there's a good chance Brian has seen it.


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