Lawless – Review


Prohibition-era drama has explosive kick, just like the moonshine swallowed

The line between truth and fiction is fine. Though, that fine line can become blurred when a film claims to be “based on” or “inspired by” true events. Lawless is a film based on a true story, but it is laid out in such fashion that you would think everything depicted was more than fifty percent make believe. Perhaps that is due to the fact that Forrest Bondurant, the proprietor of a moonshine business in 1931 Franklin County, Virginia, is rumored to be invincible. The rumor arose because he survived a severe illness (Spanish flu, most likely). Such distinction makes him a man of repute among the county folk.

If this true story tale was just about the manufacture and distribution of moonshine that’s one thing, but remember this story is set during a period in America’s history where making, selling, buying and consuming alcohol was illegal. Forrest doesn’t make moonshine out of spite; Franklin County hangs its reputation as being the “Moonshine Capital of the World.” The Bondurant family clan as well as most of the county residents took to making moonshine and selling it to neighboring counties as a means to make some scratch and eke out a living. Some even dared to cross state lines at the chance to increase their profits.

But the prevalence of bootlegging in Franklin County draws the ire of curious parties, most notably a lawman who is keenly interested in Forrest, and the ballyhoo of his being “immortal.”

The two men present a intriguing set up where we have the law and the lawless, though which is which depends on who you would rather root for: the man who started his own small business – illegal as it is – or someone who feels entitled to a percentage of the profits just because he promotes himself as law and order. Both men are walking oxymorons of each other. Forrest (Tom Hardy) is an honest lawbreaker that measures his responses, either with unintelligible grunts or lethal ramifications. While other moonshiners may kowtow to the new “special deputy” in town, Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), giving him a piece of their business – a weekly stipend of thirty dollars to start – Forrest is not one for extortion. He presents himself as a challenge to Rakes and the two are on a collision course, a course where extreme violence is more anticipated than it is surprising.

Those familiar with Australian filmmaker John Hillcoat’s two previous works (which includes a cinematic adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic The Road) know he paints his films with broad strokes which involve characters being covered in muck along the way. Yet his latest film has quite a few moments of levity to go with the depravity of the human condition. Once again he collaborates with musician Nick Cave, who also penned the script for Hillcoat’s The Proposition. Cave’s screenplay is based on a fictionalized account of the Bondurant family (The Wettest County in the World), as written by Matt Bondurant, grandson to the youngest of the Bondurant brothers.

From the description above it would appear that the film is all about Forrest and Rakes. Alas, it is not. The biggest plot is the maturation of Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf), the youngest sibling. Besides serving as narrator, he spends much of the film’s running time wanting to be like his big brother. Sadly, they approach the moonshine business differently. Forrest isn’t driven by wanton wealth like Jack. And unlike Forrest, Jack is less than cautious when it comes to matters of the law. Howard (Jason Clarke), the oldest of the three, spends most of his days drinking as a means to forget the atrocities his witnessed while fighting in the Great War. His alcoholism is rarely called into question, but it makes him a liability as a bootlegger nonetheless.

Prohibition was a fascinating period in America’s history. In many ways it served as a bridge from the Old West ways to the rise of the American gangster. Al Capone, Bonnie & Clyde, and Dillinger are names we know. The Bondurant boys are more on the periphery of the infamous figures we associate with the period.

Infusing the story with the requisite violent action as found in a gangster picture (Tom Hardy’s near Pez dispenser moment is quite the shocker), Lawless presents an outsider’s look about a unique period in our history as told from the perspective of a family that looked to being doing right (for themselves) in spite of the government telling them otherwise.

Those who complained about Tom Hardy’s voice as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises you’ll be happy to know that he keeps his words well guarded, remarking mostly in grunts or with tiny gestures. The best gesture may be his repositioning of a hat on a table after it is moved initially by the easy on the eyes Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain), a new-hire at the eating establishment the Bondurants own and a woman looking to escape her sordid life in big city Chicago. The sequence hints their attraction to one another. It’s a fine moment and a little unsuspecting considering the film’s overall tone.

Hardy’s commanding presence makes him a nice foil to the supposed “good guy,” special deputy Rakes. Guy Pearce also gives a standout performance as the creepy crawly Rakes. His genteel, almost too prissy quality is offset by his maliciousness. For one sequence, all you have to do is observe the face of a naked woman he has in his motel room and see her look of defeatism.

The biggest drawback is Shia LaBeouf as Jack Bondurant. In a strong ensemble that also includes Gary Oldman playing a notorious Chicago gangster, LeBeouf is a loose thread outmatched by his supporting stars. His early scenes, which include being Rakes’ personal punching bag and his courting of a pastor’s daughter, show his immaturity. In some ways, his character reminded me of Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill in Goodfellas. He loved the gangster lifestyle but left most of the heavy lifting to his friends, or in this case his older brothers. Here, LaBeouf attempts to play grown-up, having as many clothing accessories as a Ken doll, trying to look dapper despite his hillbilly surroundings.

Even with LaBeouf as bad casting, Lawless is a good film about Prohibition but is outclassed by the likes of Miller’s Crossing and The Untouchables. Still, Tom Hardy’s commanding presence, Guy Pearce’s vileness and the bursts of shoot’em up action, not to mention Benoit Delhomme’s wonderful cinematography, make this one easy to recommend. If you watch it in a venue that serves alcohol BYOMJ (Bring Your Own Mason Jar).

Director: John Hillcoat
Writer: Nick Cave, based on the novel “The Wettest County in the World” by Matt Bondurant
Notable Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Gary Oldman

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