Directed by John Hilcoat
Weinstein Company, 115 mins, R (violence and brief nudity)
* * * ½
Lawless probably flew through a mall near you with the speed of a Black Friday markdown. It’s hardly a masterpiece, but this Bonnie and Clyde-meets-Matewan-meets-The Godfather Depression-era drama is surely worth a rental. It features solid performances, a superb soundtrack, and a tense, taut screenplay, the latter of which may surprise as it comes from Australia’s Nick Cave, who also did much of the music.
Lawless follows the trial-by-fire of the Bondurant clan, a trio of brothers making moonshine in Franklin County, Virginia, during Prohibition. As most know, Prohibition was a huge failure in which the good intentions of self-appointed guardians of public morals clashed with the profit motive, individualism, and the gap between principle and desire. Its main accomplishment was to make ordinary people into outlaws, and to transform two-bit hoodlums such as Floyd Banner into crime moguls. The Bondurants lived in what Sherwood Anderson called “the wettest county in the world,” one in which nearly every resident had some connection to illicit liquor production, sales, or transportation. When locals encountered a roadblock, they knew it was local law enforcement stopping them to buy moonshine, not put the collar on them. Some of the best homemade hooch came from brothers Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke), and Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf). Forrest is the head of operations, partly due to local legends that cast him as indestructible; Howard is the half-civilized enforcer; and Jack is the younger brother who wants to be a player, but has a greater moral compass than stomach for violence.
All is tidy in Franklin County until an ex-Chicago cop, federal agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) shows up. Rakes is an oily dandy—and Pearce plays him with a delicious despicableness—who lived down to his name. He wants to extort the locals and rake in graft, not clean up the county. All of the locals cave in for the sake of staying in business, except for the fiercely independent Bondurant clan. Rakes’ ruthlessness amorality eventually touches off the Franklin County Moonshine Wars—think the showdown in John Sayles’ Matewan. Toss in two love interests—Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a tough cookie fleeing the city and developing a thing for the brooding, monosyllabic Forrest; and Jack’s hots for Bertha (Mia Wasikowska). Add a crippled-not-too-bright neighbor lad, Cricket Pate (Dane DeHaan), reminiscent of Michael Pollard’s C. W. Moss in Bonnie and Clyde; and toss in for good measure Jack’s battles with his conscience (like Michael Corleone in The Godfather saga, and you have the arc of this story.
Is Lawless on the derivative side of the ledger? Yes. As I said, it’s no masterpiece. Still, the performances are very good. Tom Hardy has to convey nearly every emotion physically, as his vocabulary seldom extends beyond grunts and growls; LaBoeuf rockets between cowardice, charm, and resolve. Gary Oldman shows up in a cameo as bloodthirsty Floyd Banner, but you’ll probably prefer him to Pearce’s take on Charlie Rakes, whom he plays with the sort of (metaphorical) black-hat paste-up air of villainy we usually associate with bad guys in John Sayles pictures. Chastain is also sublime as Maggie, who is equal parts unflappable and vulnerable. Kudos also for a terrific soundtrack featuring Cave, Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley, and Willie Nelson. A word of caution: some of the violence is quite graphic.
The film is based on a historical novel written by Matt Bondurant, Jack’s grandson. Some of the movie is, of course, exaggerated for cinematic impact but, yes Virginians, there was a Franklin County Moonshine War. I’d recommend this film and you happened to take away from it the message that moralists cause more social problems than they solve, well who am I to say you’re wrong?—Rob Weir