Jack (Shia LaBeouf) is the black sheep of this backwoods flock. He does not possess the size of his brothers, nor the brutality. When a spiffy, special agent from Chicago comes down to enforce a new law, the Bondurants are forced to make up for their brother's inefficiencies.
Brutality is not new to the Bondurants, but what Special Agent Rakes (a deranged Guy Pearce) presents is remarkable cruelty. He is a gloved poke right in the center of Forrest's chest. The Bondurants can be touched, he implies, and they can also bleed. Other outside elements like Mad Dog Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) also pose a danger.
Nick Cave and John Hillcoat's previous collaboration, The Proposition, was a gripping and utterly violent film that saw a revisioning of the West. Lawless proves to be just as violent, but more poetic in its implementation. Shots of the South offer a spectacular canvas for showdowns between the perpetually mumbling Tom Hardy and the associates of Rakes. The legend of the Bondurants will be tested and their way of life may die in the process.
In many ways, Lawless presents a parallel to The Godfather. Three brothers vying to create a lasting legacy: the ambitious Jack, the loose-cannon that is Howard and the stoic guardian, Forrest. One of the faults with Lawless is that the corrupted soul at the center is not portrayed by Al Pacino, rather Shia LaBeouf. The faults that many see with LaBeouf's acting may actually be the arrogance and naivete of Jack. Does he have the strengths of Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce or an always excellent Jessica Chastain? No, but he is evolving past his turns in Transformers.
While the ambitions of Lawless don't always pay off, it is an admirable effort for John Hillcoat. The stumbles are few and more than made up for with the performances of Tom Hardy and Jessica Chastain. Their scenes together are a highlight of humor in a film that wouldn't be thought of as cheery.
Still, the real draw of Lawless is of course, the criminal element, when the adrenaline throttle is shifted into gear, the film is at its finest.