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Cinema Signal: A green light for character portrayals that will hold you every minute. Go!
. "Lawless"

Capturing gangsterism by government-backed psychopaths and other mobsters, this epic drama takes us to Depression/Prohibition-era Virginia and a superb cast to etch out the dynamics of lives outside the law. It brings to mind the Melbourne Codys in the morally devastating "Animal Kingdom" as well as many a New York/Chicago/Boston drama covering similar subject matter.

After seeing "Lawless," I have to observe that the impression these character-piece films leave is as strong and memorable as the drawing of characters and the power of the actors to make the most of theirs. By that standard, the casting and acting here leaves nothing to be desired.

Tom Hardy plays Forrest Bondurant, the alpha of the bondurant clan consisting of three brothers who have had a comfortable niche in the community as one of the town's leading moonshine makers. I remember Hardy more for his laconic fighter in "Warrior" than the virtually indestructible Bane in "The Dark Knight Rises." Both roles, however, amply demonstrates the inclination and talent he has to convey a seething powerhouse of a man with no inclination to express himself verbally, as though he'll get a bill for every wasted word.

As he's the lone holdout in cooperating with the government in their profit-sharing deals on the whiskey trade in this productive enclave, we soon see him in terms of courage and fearlessness in protecting his territory and his rights. To this uncompromising man, criminality with a government badge or uniform is still unacceptable.

If he's the alpha in the family, brother Howard (Jason Clarke, "Texas Killing Fields") is the beta, a somewhat perfect backup who shares his brothers passion for justice and the violence that's necessary to maintain it. Clarke was a standout in his TV series, "U.S. Attorney" and a actor with a style all his own.

Which leaves Jack (Shia LABeouf) who possesses an altogether different set of genes. He's inherited all the fear and courage his siblings don't have, illustrated in an early scene when, as a young boy, he was unable to shoot a pig, presumably for dinner.

The Bondurants are up against their moonshine peers and competitors in feud-like animosities, but the danger is raised several notches with the arrival of Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), with pommaded hairstyle topping a polished-down look and demeanor except that he's a sociopath on the loose as a government official come to apply the new prohibition law at the pain of death.

In harmony with the realism of the performances, the action and events are done with the same sense of truth in the action, with all the incertitude and spontaneity of real life confrontations where passions outflank common sense and people act without plan or reason. Director John Hillcoat is careful to maintain a level of dread and destiny while avoiding heightened reality with superheroic capabilities carried out with fancy editing and effects. This is the analog, not the digital; the tube amplifier, not the solid state.

Key to the atmosphere of epic and legend is cinematographer Benoit Delhomme's ("The Son of No One") generally de-saturated style that fits the time, the circumstances, and Chris Kennedy's tasteful production design. The somber look and feel contrast to great effect against the full color pallette and slight gauze effect of Jack and Bertha's courtship. Visual mastery from start to finish.

The women in the story completes the depth of the piece as it heightens the suspense with the introduction of Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain) as a pretty doll trying to get away from the hard life of the big city, looking for a job at the Bondurants' bar. Chastain wins us with her ability to combine street handle-it-herself smarts with a look that fits the backwoods setting.

Mia Wasikowska ("Alice in Wonderland") is virginal Bertha Minnix, the pastor's daughter and Jack's not-too-disinterested sweetheart.

"Is this you courtin' me, Jack Bondurant?"
Taking a moment to think about that.
"Uh, yeah."
Another perfect touch in the heartbeat department.

I'm aware that the critics haven't been overly kind to this film. Maybe it's because it has the ring of something seen before. Or, a realistic level of violence and depth of character that can be offputting. Or, as is most likely, a time-passing vignette somewhere past the middle of the movie that seems to change the direction and/or dynamics enough to maybe make a demanding critic to think that there's a loss of focus. But, while I can see that some might see such flaws here, there's no doubt that the best that this film has to offer far outweighs them.

Rocker/Screenwriter Nick Cave ("Proposition"), working from the novel by the real Matt Bondurant, "The Wettest County in the World" -- captures his hero both as a dominant personality to be feared, despised or respected but also a legend; and, in the folds of his family as a deep introvert who puts family protection before anything else. As fine a character portrait as this is, seen so well from the two perspectives, the same can be said for all the major characters who are equally well defined and consistent. Kudos to all for a full experience that exemplifies the reason movies can be enriching and riveting.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Tom Hardy is Forrest Bondurant
Closing in on his government-sent nemesis.

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