Following a screening of Lawless, a woman said to my Dad in passing that she didn’t think she’d ever seen a gangster picture with a rural setting. “What about Bonnie and Clyde”, he responded. Much like some people don’t know their movie history, many are unaware of the real life story of the infamous Bondurant brothers, a family of bootleggers who stood up to corrupt authorities that wanted in on their profits during the prohibition era. Inspired by the story of his great-grandfather and two great uncles, Matt Bondurant penned the 2008 historical novel The Wettest County in the World, focusing on youngest brother Jack. Commercially successful movie star Shia LaBeouf plays young Jack and although he is the primary protagonist in Lawless, he’s not the most interesting character nor does he give the most memorable performance. That distinction goes to rising scene stealer Tom Hardy as middle brother Forrest, with Guy Pearce, as the corrupt lawman that becomes the bane of the Bondurant brothers’ existence, a close second.
There are many great performance to be found in Lawless, from the likes of Gary Oldman as city gangster Floyd Banner, Jason Clarke as eldest and never sober brother Howard and Jessica Chastain as mysterious waitress Maggie Beauford. In the past year, Chastain has become a lucky charm for just about every film she’s a part of, meaning, if she’s in it, it must be good. If only the same can be said for LaBeouf, but that’s another story.
Like Bonnie and Clyde, Lawless is a tale of love, greed and violence, with director John Hillcoat going heavy on the latter, showcasing some rather brutal moments. The violence isn’t there to sensationalize the story, but as an extension of characters who are capable of doing a great many evil deeds. Bondurant’s novel was adapted by none other than musician and songwriter Nick Cave, who first collaborated with Hillcoat with his original screenplay for The Proposition and also wrote the musical scores for that film and the post-apocalyptic drama The Road. These men like to tell down and dirty tales in down and dirty settings, so if you’re expecting a glossy and clean gangster picture like that lady who spoke to my Dad, you’re seriously mistaken.
The novel’s title, The Wettest County in the World is in reference to American novelist Sherwood Anderson’s impression of 1930′s Franklin County, Virginia, where the story is set. Led by middle brother Forrest, the Bondurants run an illegal moonshine business in the face of the law, making them local legends. Some even call Forrest immortal, since he greets any opposition or violence head on before any threat or situation can escalate. To keep up appearances, they still run a a general store and gas station even though everyone knows its a roadhouse. As long as they don’t bring attention to themselves, the local authorities, who also get their palms greased, are happy.
It’s when non-local authorities come around that the real trouble begins. When a corrupt politician from Chicago arrives in town he brings with him a vicious watchdog in the form of Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Pearce). Since the Bondurants have monopolized bootlegging in Franklin County, naturally these new players want a bigger cut. Knowing that he’s in for a fight, the defiant Forrest refuses, igniting a war between his family and the law. Other bootleggers take the offer out of fear of conflict, but Forrest is in no mood to share any of his family’s hard earned profits, even if it means their enemy is now the law.
Rakes is more of a bad egg than Forrest realizes, a slickster obsessed with appearance and a sadistic killer to boot. After he makes Jack’s face look like raw hamburger with his fists, Rakes and his deputies begin attacking the Bondurant’s moonshine stills, forcing them to build more production facilities deep and hidden in the county woods. Ashamed after suffering a beating at the hands of Rakes, the initially timid Jack attempts to take a more active role in the business after Forrest is wounded in an altercation with rival moonshiners. After witnessing him shoot a man in public, Jack approaches new in town city gangster Floyd Banner (Oldman), making a deal to sell him moonshine which has become nearly impossible to do in Franklin thanks to Rakes and his goons. Oldman’s appearance is a brief, but as expected, a memorable one. Unlike Forrest and hothead brother Howard, Jack becomes enamored with what money can buy as well as the beauty of the daughter of a Mennonite pastor. He believes slick clothes and a fancy car will impress young Bertha (Mia Wasokowski), but obviously he does not know women. Neither does Forrest, who after taking in ex-dancer and Chicago native Maggie (Chastain), has no clue that she’s admired him from afar and slowly fallen in love with him.
Lawless may be a crime picture filled with violence and plenty of conflict, but at its heart, the film is really about relationships. Each of the Bondurant brothers completely differs from the other with Howard as the muscle, never sober to lead them, unlike the more reserved Forrest who only sees violence as a final option. Clarke doesn’t take center stage like Hardy and LaBeouf, yet the actor is given the occasional moment where we feel his character is drowning some sorrows from a history never explored. LaBeouf’s Jack is a hothead as well, but not in the physical sense. He’s quick to jump to conclusions and take action, but they turn out to be the wrong actions. It’s understandable, since his character is the youngest and most inexperienced, but it becomes difficult to identify with him since LaBeouf’s performance feels no different from whiny Sam Witwicky in those Transformers films. He’s even upstaged by Chronicle’s Dane DeHaan as “Cricket”, a boy with a gimpy leg, who’s the Bonderants’ lucky charm with it comes to mixing moonshine. On more than one occasion Jack’s actions spell big trouble from the brothers, like when he tries to impress Bertha by showing her where one of their hidden moonshine facilities is located, unaware they’re being watched.
Hardy picks up much of the slack left by LaBeouf with a steady and measured performance. His Southern drawl is more like a mumble, but that actual works in favor of his delivery. Forrest is a man of few words, who can convey much more with his body language or just a glance. The power of his presence makes him appealing to Chastain’s Maggie, a weary girl with some secrets of her own, yet strong in ways that Forrest can’t imagine, making her the perfect woman for him, even if he can’t see it. Pearce takes what could have been a third-rate villain and nearly upstages the entire cast. His performance is on the level of perhaps Heath Ledger’s Joker, with incredible bits of detail and eccentricities. Many of the characters take notice that Rakes likes to wear “perfume” as the call it, but he’s also a bit of a neat freak, always combing his hair with a fine toothed comb, using handkerchiefs or wearing gloves when he uses his fists on Jack. There’s even a creepy moment where a nude prostitute sits on newspaper on his bed as she nervously watches him groom himself in the mirror. Pearce makes Rakes a vicious and dirty villain (in the figurative sense), so much so that you yearn for him to meet his demise, yet look forward to what horrible act he may commit next. Pearce walks that fine line between being truly evil and cartoonish, yet does so with great brilliance.
Lawless has its share of what many may feel are dull beats, when anyone with a brain will understand they are moments meant to establish story and character. At the same time, the most interesting elements are when the violence and action heat up, whether it be a shoot-out or verbal confrontation between characters. Despite the fact that LaBeouf’s performance makes his character unlikable, it’s very easy to identify with and root for the Bondurants even if in essence they are criminals. They work as protagonists because in some ways, they represent the American dream and are struggling to survive in their corner of the world, which happens to be a very violent one.