Video review: Lawless

(MA15+) ****

Director: John Hillcoat.

Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, Jason Clarke, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Dane DeHaan.

VIOLENCE has long been a fixture of movies, but when it's not being used as a spectacle it can be an interesting theme.

It's certainly the central motif in this moonshine-soaked tale of bootleggers standing up to a corrupt police force in prohibition-era Virginia.

How violence is used, its questionable necessity, its motivations and its repercussions are played out in confronting fashion in this drama that's part-rural gangster flick, part-modern western.

Based on Matt Bondurant's novel The Wettest County In The World, it follows three of the author's ancestors - Forrest (Hardy), Howard (Clarke) and Jack (LaBeouf) Bondurant - who led a happy existence bootlegging liquor with the tacit approval of the local police.

Enter the eyebrowless psychopath Special Deputy Charley Rakes (Pearce), who wants a slice of the action, but this doesn't go down well with the Bondurants.

Nor does their defiance sit well with Rakes, and soon all manner of violence is unleashed in Franklin County.

It's an interesting story, well told, but the highlight is the performances and characters, each well written and exquisitely brought to life.

Hardy is outstanding (if a little difficult to understand at times), painting Forrest as the wise but stubborn patriach of the Bondurant clan, who knows when words are of no use and when to whip the brass knuckles out of his cardigan pocket. He's probably the most violent cardigan-wearer cinema has ever seen.

Hardy's quiet menace is matched by Pearce's truly frightening turn as the sadistic Rakes, which is a performance to match his best work in LA Confidential and another of Hillcoat's films, The Proposition.

LaBeouf acquits himself well as the fame-hungry Jack, who is keen to prove his worth to his older brothers, while Chastain is excellent as a woman seeking a fresh start in the Virginia's hills after a tough time in Chicago - unfortunately, hers is the most frustratingly cliched character in the film, but it's a good performance nonetheless.

An avoidance of cliches and the expected is a benefit to Lawless, which builds ominously towards its stormy conclusion, only putting a few steps wrong along the way, but for the most part Nick Cave's script is surefooted and strong.

It's moments of beauty are matched by sudden, confronting scenes of violence - the red stuff flows as much as the moonshine - but it's violence with a purpose. The great irony of the film, as with many movies about prohibition, is that the banning of alcohol caused more violence than likely existed prior to its restriction.

Lawless looks gorgeous - dusty, gritty, sepia-toned and occasionally stark - despite its ugly brutality, and its score (also by Cave and regular cohort Warren Ellis) is fantastic, particularly its use of old-timey-sounding covers of The Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat.

As with Hillcoat's The Proposition and The Road, Lawless isn't exactly a cheery experience. But it's a powerful story that packs a punch (plus a few stabbings and shootings).

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