The tagline for this film states, "When the law became corrupt, outlaws became heroes." I'm not sure "heroes" is the appropriate terminology I'd use, but the film does attempt to demonstrate the lower social class' struggle not to be undermined by the town's cartel on alcohol manufacture and distribution during prohibition-era Virginia.
Lawless tells the true-story, based on the book by Matt Bondurant, of three brothers (Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke) selling home-made moonshine in the Franklin County region of Virginia. Jack (LaBeouf), the youngest of the three, is the docile brother. He follows his brothers in-tow, but is non-confrontational. During the first scene of the film, we see a young Jack in a flashback unable to shoot a pig and watches, while one of his brothers pulls the trigger. Forrest (Hardy) is a man of few words, but doesn't hesitate to take action, which there is a lot of in this film, when need be. And Howard (Clarke), the eldest, is the whiskey-loving brother, who'se first to crack a joke. Jack's friend Cricket (Dane DeHaan) creates and operates a moonshine machine right out of his basement and the three Bondurant brothers, haul the alchohol in jars in the back of their pick-up, distributing them around town, including to the local law-enforcement officials. When Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a Chicagoan businessman, comes to town ordering a monopoly on all moonshine sales, the brothers refuse to be subordinate.
The film draws some obvious parallels to other gangster films of the depression era, occasionally paying homage to such classics as Bonnie and Clyde (look at the opening credits and photograph shots), but stands on its own as a relevant depiction of political debauchery, stratification of social classes and economic instability. The films highlights these moments subtlely: there's a shot of families lined up on the roads, their belongings in-hand and a billboard in the background displaying an ironic message of living the American dream or something similar to that nature.
What is refreshing though is watching some of these actors become accutely connected to their characters that we have no problem rooting for them despite some serious law breaching, I guess that's where the "heroes" characterization comes from. Criminal and criminal activity don't hold any kind of stigma in this film. The "heroes" are just people trying to get by. LaBeouf is the obvious stand out here; it's nice to see him take on some serious material again. He handles his character with both a genuine vulnerability and then with a thoughtful, focused nature, especially in his shared scene with Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), a local gangster and somewhat of an idol in Jack's eyes. There's nothing contrived about his perfomance, he's committed the entire time and that's quite an accomplishment considering he's acting alongside a pretty impressive cast. Hardy is the other notable actor, whose presence and stoic demeanor--he chews on a toothpick, sternly, but silently determines his dusty hat's place on the table, and grunts his answers--in a scene is enough to establish his descent from the law.
The rest of the cast was just as engaging, if however minimal in their screen time. Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain had great supporting roles as love-interests for Jack and Forrest, respectively. Gary Oldman was unsurprisingly convincing as a callous criminal. His scenes were scarce, but no doubt infuse the right level of fear. The only real problem was perhaps Guy Pearce's character. His performance wasn't bad, but how many more times are we going to see him play this persona? The second we walks on screen, we know he's just as sleazy as his his hair and root against him.
The film, I must add, was quite gory and you see the full depiction of criminal misbehavior in all it's bloody glory, which is part of the fun in watching this film. The film's serious messages aside, it offers plenty of striped-coat action, merciless acts of punishment and bloody-knuckle confrontations.
I don't know if Lawless chronicles the story of any heroes, perhaps it depends on your definition of the word, but it certainly lives up to its name.