I have a confession to make. I’m a Shia LeBeouf fan.
I have been since he was in the kids show Even Stevens, where he was incredibly funny and charming as the slightly goofy protagonist. As the more than slightly goofy younger brother to a well behaved and academically gifted older sister, I could kinda relate. And he’s made a couple of movies I’ve enjoyed- Disturbia, Eagle Eye, Constantine and the first Transformers movie. Sure there have been missteps, and he’s been unfairly blamed for the rubbish Indiana Jones movie, but I kinda like the guy.
The problem with this film is that LeBouef, while decent enough in the role of youngest bootlegging brother Jack Bondurant, is that he’s hopelessly outclassed by other members of the cast.
Set in Prohibition era Virginia the film follows the Bondurant brothers, who are successful moonshine makers and regarded with respect in their area due to their toughness and aura of invincibility. Jack is the youngest of the three and most ambitious, dreaming of the high life and material wealth, frustrated to be following the orders of his tough, gruff older brother Forrest (Tom Hardy), and the ridicule of his other brother Howard (Jason Clarke), the least intelligent but most vicious of the three, haunted by his experiences during the First World War.
They are successful, and their county hosts many bootleggers. Jack witnesses a mobster, Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), killing a rival and this in part fuels his desire to be a sharp suited gangster. He also finds himself attracted to Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) the daughter of a local preacher.
Things change when the Commonwealth Attorney sends in a special deputy, Rakes (Guy Pearce), to tell the bootleggers that they want a cut of the action. Rakes visits Forrest, who refuses to deal with him and warns him not to return. However, Rakes intimidates several of the other bootleggers to comply.
Forrest hires a new waitress who has fled Chicago, an ex-dancer named Maggie (Jessica Chastain), who he is attracted to but uncomfortable around. During a meeting with buyers from Chicago who are in league with Rakes, a fight ensues and Forrest beats them up. However, they return when he is alone and attack him, also assaulting Maggie. Forrest is severly wounded and left for dead, but survives, adding to the local feeling that the Bondurant brothers are almost immortal.
While Forrest recovers, Jack goes against his wishes and performs a deal only to be double crossed. He is however spared by Banner, who rescues him and they go into business together, leading the brothers to make even more money.
As their success and wealth grows, Jack begins to flaunt his successes, but Rakes still lurks in the shadows, putting pressure on the brothers’ allies and keeping tabs on them. Tension mounts and a violent confrontation seems inevitable. Can the Bondurant brothers’ luck hold?
I really dug this flick, even if it does retread familiar gangster movie territory. However, the backwoods setting makes it a little different and the performances are top drawer.
LeBouef does some of his best work, and makes Jack a believable and rounded character, caught between boy- and manhood. He wants to be taken seriously by his brothers and seen as being another of the tough Bondurant brothers, but he lacks their physical grit and is too caught up in wanting to be seen as a success. He shows off his later wealth, oblivious to the depression gripping the rest of the country, and poses with guns and cars in a way that highlight’s his youth.
The problem is, as good as he is, LeBeouf is eclipsed by Tom Hardy in the role of the lead brother. Hardy underplays the role, with Forrest being a quiet, gruff guy but his shuffling, bearlike manner is mesmerizing to watch, and when he does talk the audience sits up to listen. Hardy continues to be an incredible physical presence on film, and here despite spending much of the film in a cardigan he never fails to look like a man with whom you shouldn’t mess, which is backed up in the character’s frenzied violence when provoked.
The violence throughout the film is shocking, and definitely not for the faint of heart. The film moves along at a fairly sedate place, with an air of impending doom and menace hanging over the proceedings but when it kicks off it really kicks off, with explosive, vicious bursts of violence which director John Hillcoat shoots in a no-nonsense, wince inducing manner.
It’s not all grim, and there are flashes of black humour, as well as sweeter touches such as Jack’s nervous courtship and Forrest’s discomfort around Maggie, the only moments in the film where the older Bondurant brother doesn’t seem in control, aside from when he’s injured.
Gary Oldman doesn’t have much to do, but brings gravitas to the role of a vicious and cold blooded mobster and Jessica Chastain is good as the alluring Maggie, fleeing her past and drawn to Forrest.
Best of the supporting players though is Guy Pearce as the major antagonist. The character of Rakes is quite unique and he stands out like a sore thumb- slickly dressed and quite foppish he doesn’t fit with the rough and ready country surroundings, which he shows complete disdain for. But Pearce ensures that under the neat suits and delicate, fussy mannerisms there’s a genuine sense of menace and unpleasantness, as well as capturing the character’s slow fraying as he comes to realize that he has more to reckon with from the brothers.
The film also touches on the self-mythologizing of American crime figures, mainly through Jack’s dreams of being an Al Capone figure but also in the way Forrest seems to buy into the local feeling that he’s indestructible, which given Hardy’s muscular presence is understandable. Yet despite this it still buys into the outlaw myth, the little guys standing up against corrupt government officials and unfair laws, although it should be noted that a blackly comic ending serves to undermine some of this.
It has flaws, but for the most part it’s entertaining enough and rather gripping.
Verdict: Tom Hardy is immense as the brutish bootlegger, and kinda steals the show from everyone else, which is a shame as Guy Pearce and Shia LeBeouf are both on fine form. The plot is simple enough, and you can tell where it’s all going, but there are nice touches throughout, and the ending serves to undercut some of the gangster mythologizing. Hillcoat directs it all well, handling the shifts in tone well and building genuine tension throughout. It’ll be a bit violent for some, but for crime movie fans it should hit the spot. 7.5/10.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.