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September 1, 2012 | 12:10 p.m. CST
Lawless is a rowdy film, endearingly so, bound together at its seams by the rowdiest trio in Franklin County: brothers Jack, Forrest and Howard Bondurant, moonshine peddlers in prohibition-era Virginia.
The Bondurants (Shia LaBeouf, Jason Clarke and Tom Hardy) are the collective subject of local legend: an indestructible threesome, invincible to law and nature both. They maneuver their rumbling pickup truck up and down Franklin’s dirt roads while mason jars of white lightning clatter in the back, ad infinitum. Operating in what is referred to as the wettest county in the world grows more difficult, however, when Charlie Rakes, a magnificently slimy Guy Pearce, appears from Chicago and demands a different sort of racket from the Bondurants.
Pearce, as the film’s principal antagonist, is a marvel: the effeminate, malevolent Rakes preens around Franklin with terrifying swagger and organizes local law enforcement, petty thugs and fellow bootleggers against the Bondurants in what becomes the film’s chief conflict. Rakes is a strikingly original villain in a world with too few: Pearce, outfitted with razor-thin wisps for eyebrows, truly disappears into the sexually ambiguous role while sneering and shooting and strutting his way back and forth across Franklin in an ever-immaculate suit and leather gloves, dogged in his pursuit of the brothers Bondurant.
Based on a true story and the book The Wettest County in the World, Lawless is well-paced and extremely well-cast: Hardy is a winner as the stoic, grunt-prone Forrest, and Gary Oldman is especially good – if criminally underutilized – as Floyd Banner, a notorious gangster. Director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave deserve credit for a worthwhile adaptation, but Lawless may be worth a viewing for Charlie Rakes alone.