A trio of brothers in rural Virginia attempt to make a profit off of prohibition, only to face a crackdown from the fuzz, led by Guy Pearce. Lawless features excellent performances by Shia LeBeouf and Tom Hardy, a confident portrayal of time and place, and a polished style make this western/gangster hybrid one of the better films of 2012, and possibly among the best.
Deep in rural Virginia, in the toughest years of Prohibition, hundreds of families made ends meet by making homebrew in their basements and barns. The law was largely complicit in this process; in fact, in 1931 the police attempted to systematize the constant bribery so that everyone could get a slice of the lucrative pie. In Lawless, the Bondurant boys decide to fight back.
Lawless follows three brothers: or rather, two alpha males and a runt. The intimidating and potentially indestructible Forrest (Hardy) controls their household and their bootlegging with absolute authority. The wild Howard (Jason Clarke) acts as a loyal deputy, charged with keeping the substandard Jack (LeBouf) in line. As the film commences, the boys begin their ascent of the bootlegging ranks, leading to escalating clashes with the authorities, including the insufferably dapper Deputy, Charlie Rakes (Pearce).
More interesting than actual plot is the tenuousness of the brothers’ relationship. Jack is trapped in an almost feudal relationship to Forrest. Jack must put the needs of the estate above his own, including literally laying the cash he’s earned at Forrest’s feet. Despite his loyal and sometimes degrading service, he is not guaranteed protection in return. When Rakes beats Jack into a pulp, Forrest doesn’t seek revenge. Instead, he chastises Jack, asking, “You expect somebody else to handle it?” It’s clear that the family will ultimately stick together, but whether they stay out of brotherly love or economic necessity is hard to tell.
This biting tension is brought to life by Hardy and LeBeouf’s subtle performances. Hardy exhibits the gravity of a preacher and the ego of a king – Bane’s deceptive equanimity with a Southern drawl. In turn, LeBeouf emphasizes Jack’s awkward youth, his painful ambition, and his occasional stupidity. Their bitterly opposing personalities are the engine that pushes the film forward.
The film is based on The Wettest County in the World, a novel derived from the real life adventures of author Matt Bondurant’s grandfather. As if echoing the novel’s prose, the screenplay meanders among diverse themes, from the differences between city and country folk to the diversity within small town communities. Romance arrives with Maggie (an excellent Jessica Chastain), a Chicagoan-turned-waitress who injects sultry femininity into their rough-hewn lives. As she and Forrest exchange glances, Jack begins a sweet, innocent romance with a preacher’s daughter (Mia Wasikowska).
It’s difficult to watch this movie without making comparisons to Bonnie and Clyde. Both films are part gangster, part western, and part romance. They depict many of the same subjects, down to posing with guns on their cars. And Lawless, like Bonnie, revels in raw carnage, from hot tar poured over bare flesh to severed testicles stuffed in a brown paper bag.
Unlike the jarring conclusion of its predecessor, however, Lawless opts for a unexpectedly mild resolution that champions the value of family and comfort over profit and expertly choreographed violence. I find this choice odd if not outright cowardly, as it is hard to believe that the bleak reality depicted in the first hundred minutes of the film could be overcome so smoothly.
Lawless is a skillful, deserving film that will hopefully be recognized as such when awards season rolls around. Even so, in a movie so radically different from standard multiplex fare, it’s disappointing to be left with a typical Hollywood ending.
Some films that are “based on a true story” have no more historical veracity than a Wikipedia entry. Lawless, on the other hand, is seriously committed to the reality behind its story, and includes multiple DVD features to prove it.
First there is “The True Story of the Wettest County in the World,” in which the actors and select crew members discuss their takes on the film. It’s a hodgepodge compilation of interviews similar to what one would expect at Comic Con: vaguely informative, but mostly promotional.
Then again, the historical featurette “Franklin County, VA: Then and Now” is both very informative and very dull. Experts in Virginian history discuss the lively moonshine trade that existed long before Prohibition, but exploded with the outlawing of alcohol. Similarly, “The Story of the Bondurant Family” (included on the Blu-ray but not on the DVD) discusses Matt Bondurant’s research process for The Wettest County, including a slideshow of his grandfather’s photographs.
The director’s commentary is surprisingly engaging, thanks to the pairing of director John Hillcoat with Matt Bondurant, author of the source material and grandson of the real Bondurant boys. The pair had clearly weathered numerous press conferences and interviews before this commentary was recorded, as they make a point of addressing issues that have frequently come up. They tend to wander onto tangents about the history behind the film or the production issues they overcame, but together they have a very productive conversation.
The deleted scenes are evidence of the airtight editing of the final product. The extra footage is either a negligible extension of existing sections or focuses on short expositional scenes that relay information eventually told in other scenes. Last and least, there is a Willie Nelson music video, in which the aging country bard strums along to clips from the feature.
The Blu-ray package includes a Blu-ray, a DVD, and a digital copy which transfers the film to a tablet or smart phone. As a hopeless luddite, I don’t understand the appeal of watching a two hour film on a six inch screen, but it’s a handy addition, nevertheless.