Lawless tells the Prohibition-era tale of the Bondurant brothers, real-life brothers who bootlegged in Franklin County, Virginia. The plot is based off of the historical novel, The Wettest County in the World, written by Matt Bondurant, the grandson of the youngest Bondurant brother.
Thus, the plot centers around the youngest, Jack Bondurant, played by Shia LaBeouf. He and his older brothers, Howard and Forrest, are successful bootleggers and bar owners. Forrest, the oldest, has generated himself into a local legend – after surviving World War I and the 1918 flu pandemic, locals believe Forrest cannot die. In fact, Forrest, a quiet-yet-stubborn, rough-around-the-edges kind of man, believes it himself.
Things change when Special Agent Charlie Rakes, played by Guy Pierce, comes to Franklin County and demands a cut of all bootlegging profits. Rakes’ intimidation tactics are intensely violent, and one by one, all of the bootleggers give in to his demands – all but Forrest and his brothers. Unsurprisingly, this leads to a horrifically violent war between the Bondurant brothers and Rakes. All of the violence in the movie abruptly shatters the beautiful shots of rural Virginia, but realistically depict how cutthroat the bootlegging business was during Prohibition. However, while Forrest stands up to Rakes, Jack is more timid and cowardly in the face of danger, wearing his heart on his sleeve.
In this way, LaBeouf’s role as the protagonist seemed unnecessary. The role would have worked better as a secondary character. Forrest stole the show with his mannerisms and character development. Besides, the whole movie seemed centered around Forrest anyway – he was the oldest, he managed their bootlegging business, he stood up to Rakes, and he was the one who generated local legends.
In contrast, Jack remained static the entire film. He was spineless, unwilling to harm or be harmed. He bumbles through the movie making mistakes that nearly cost him and those closest to him their lives. If Jack had developed and matured as a character, especially after all that he had been through, it would make since that he was the main character. Just because he is averse to the violence surrounding him doesn’t make him a weak character. He could have turned that into a strength. But because he doesn’t change, it just seemed a little annoying that the camera seemed to be following him around when there seemed to be more important things going on with more important characters. I kept wondering what Forrest was up to.
However, Jack’s romance with the local preacher’s daughter, Bertha, made all his foolishness worthwhile. It was pure and sweet. Jack gave his all in romancing Bertha, who was intrigued by the man her father had forbidden her to see. All in all, while Jack’s character was frustratingly stagnant, LaBeouf played him convincingly.
The climax was predictably violent and thrilling, but it wouldn’t have made sense for this cutthroat thriller to end with peaceable negotiations. Though Jack shouldn’t have been the main character, the film was a great snap shot of one of the most interesting times in American history. The cinematography was gorgeous, the violence was intense, and the characters were well acted. But the odd use of Jack as the protagonist made the film’s storytelling a little disharmonious.