"It's not the violence that sets a man apart. It's the distance that he's prepared to go."
A brooding and often grittily authentic period bootlegging drama, Lawless is punctuated by bouts of shocking brutality, driven by a raft of quirky but unique and largely commendable performances, and let down only by an unsure direction to the central story and an anticlimactic third act which runs, head-first, into a brick wall and then further sours the taste with Lord of the Rings-style multiple-endings. Indeed, with a little refinement, this beautifully-shot and quietly lyrical composition could have easily been the truly memorable gangster gem that it so clearly set out to be.
Based on the 2008 novel, The Wettest County in the World, written by Matt Bondurant - the grandson of the foremost of the lead characters - the story is about three brothers (the tough but stubborn leader, Forrest; the unreliably drunk eldest brother Howard; and the youngest but most ambitious of the three, Jack) running a small moonshine bootlegging operation in rural Franklin County, Virginia, during Prohibition. Writer Sherwood Anderson, whose viewpoint was used for one of the two parallel storylines in the book, dubbed Franklin County “The Wettest County in the World” (hence the book’s title), and, sure enough, locals themselves used to call the County the “Moonshine Capital of the World” even back during Prohibition days. As far as we see, however, the dominant moonshine operation in the area appears to be by these three Bondurant brothers, who, at least to begin with, seem to be content to just peddle their undiluted, unadulterated, reasonably decent moonshine to their regular and very content customers in the surrounding area.
Things are about to change, however. We’re almost a decade into Prohibition, and the long hand of the law has finally reached Franklin County in the form of corrupt FBI Special Agent Rakes. The local police have always been happy to turn a blind eye to the alcohol distribution in the area – hell, they often take a case just for themselves – but now there’s a new Attorney in town, and he wants the FBI to impose more punitive restrictions on the common folk. Although almost everybody agrees to conform to this new higher bribe, the Bondurant brothers – fronted by the most experienced of the three, Forrest – refuse. Special Agent Rakes doesn’t like this very much, and soon takes a very personal interest in breaking the brothers and shutting down their operation.
Meanwhile the youngest brother, Jack, has plans of his own. He’s seen notorious mobster Floyd Banner in action and so he’s seen the way the other, richer, half live – and he wants a piece of the action. He doesn’t want to be some small-time bootlegger in an impoverished nowhere-ville. He wants to expand the operation, and make some real money – impress the girls, or one girl in particular: a young preacher’s daughter who catches his eye. But Forrest isn’t really very interested in changing things – he doesn’t like change, and is struggling already with the intoxicating presence of the glamorous Maggie Beauford, who the brothers hire to help the day-to-day running of their operation. And Howard is too drunk to care one way or another but will, by default, support Forrest, mainly because of Jack’s complete lack of experience. However, when things start to get bloody, Jack resorts not to revenge violence, but instead strategy: he builds a fast car and starts exporting the alcohol across state, where it will achieve a higher price.
Will the three brothers be able to really make the transition to the ‘high life’? Do they even want to? And, either way, there doesn’t appear to be much hope for them if Special Agent Rakes has his way...
“We don’t lay down for nobody.”
Australian director John Hillcoat is probably best known for his grim adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic bestseller, The Road, but he also did a far more impressive movie back in 2005, the anti-Western The Proposition, also with Guy Pearce. Working with screenwriter Nick Cave (who himself is probably better known for his music, and who had previously starred in Hillcoat’s directorial debut and done the screenplay for The Road, and who also has also done the score for several of Hillcoat’s features, including this one), they adapted the biographical novel by Bondurant, and fashioned a movie which is at once respectful to the source material and yet also more accessible for wider audiences.
Indeed it’s arguably the most accessible movie that Hillcoat has made thus far, which some might consider is both a good and a bad thing. It’s clear that Cave – upon realising that the novel was simply brimming with unconscionably violent moments and real-life historical ‘remembrances’ which were too unbelievable and too unpalatable to put even into a Hollywood adaptation – altered the source work and forged a more acceptable screenplay. That said, even the remaining incidents as portrayed in the film, border on the far-fetched, although thankfully we are pleasantly reminded that this is still based on a true story.
However none of this really would have prevented Lawless from being a masterpiece – the biggest stumbling block was probably always inherent to the source material: this is not just the story of the Bondurant brothers; the focal point is clearly the writer’s grandfather (as you would only expect), the youngest brother Jack. Following his, easily the weakest of the three brothers’ story arcs, fragments the flow and momentum of the entire piece; allowing the tone to fluctuate and, more often than not, distracting from far more interesting elements.
Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t all Shia LaBeouf’s fault. Although he seemed go downhill with each successive chapter in TheTransformersTrilogy, he’s done ok in a couple of lead vehicles (the riffs on Hitchcock’s Read Window and Vertigo – Disturbia and Eagle Eye, respectively). The trouble is, his Hollywood journey has felt quite contrived and manufactured; he’s been pushed into being an A-list star before his time, feeling out of place alongside Michael Douglas in the Wall Street sequel, and failing to present himself as anywhere near a credible replacement for Harrison Ford’s Indy. Indeed it’ll be interesting to see how he fares opposite Robert Redford in the upcoming spy thriller, The Company You Keep. The last time Redford paired up with a younger hotshot actor (the excellent and highly underrated Spy Game, by the late Tony Scott) he blew him out of the water without even leaving the office.
Funnily enough, LaBeouf’s role was originally supposed to go to none other than Ryan Gosling (Drive, The Ides of March), a man who very much is ready for some Big Roles, and who would choose instead to do another gangster drama from the same era – the notoriously delayed and equally flawed Gangster Squad. It’s a credit to LaBeouf, however, that he largely works in the part, although he is certainly hampered by what appears to be a fairly lightweight character whose story arc doesn’t really go anywhere. Which is a problem when he’s the biggest focus of the drama.
LaBeouf plays Jack Bondurant exactly as you assume he’s written – young and inexperienced; nowhere near as tough as either of his elder brothers, and not particularly inclined to take physical action under any circumstances. His forte appears to lie in ambition: he has a vision – he wants to take this small-scale bootlegging operation and expand it all the way down to Chicago. The trouble is, he doesn’t quite have the courage of his convictions, and is repeatedly inhibited by the damage done by his reckless actions.
We are constantly waiting for him to truly step up and take his place alongside his brothers – hell, even lead them if that’s what he really wants – but he never quite commits: not when he’s brutally beaten to a pulp; not when his brothers are attacked and his friends killed; and not even when he’s got a gun pointed at the guy whose death could end this whole sorry affair. By the time he does crack, you wonder why he hasn’t done so before; it’s too little, too late, and it only propels the film to the aforementioned anticlimax: one of the most disappointingly abortive shootouts/standoffs you’ve ever seen.
“Look at you, swanning around like you’re Al Capone.”
It’s a fault of the original story; a fault of the screenwriters for not adapting it better; and possibly a fault of the director for casting an actor who was not experienced enough to change things up a bit within the role itself. It’s not that LaBeouf is bad by any means – he does what you’d expect for him, and probably better than even that – but it does make you wonder what somebody else would have brought to the role. What would Gosling have done? It’s amazing how a better class of actor can transform even the most ineffectual roles.
Nonetheless, LaBeouf has some charming moments opposite Mia Wasikowska (fantastic opposite Fassbender in Jane Eyre), who plays his love interest – although they don’t necessarily further his story arc, merely playing in parallel with the rest of the events – and he also shares a fair amount of screentime with Dane DeHaan, who puts in a brilliant performance at the opposite end of the spectrum from his Akira-like turn in Chronicle, playing the science-driven Cricket, who is a Bondurant in all but name. Again, whilst these are all solid performances, the characters brought to life appear to be on a different trajectory to the rest of the plot, and the scenes where Jack and Cricket are bombing around in a car Cricket has souped-up – whilst engaging – don’t quite gel with the more bloody events that preceded them.
Which brings us to arguably the saving grace of Lawless: Tom Hardy’s Forrest Bondurant. The leader of the three brothers, Forrest is something of an enigma, who seldom lets anything slip beyond his frosty demeanour, and who merely wants to live a simple, quite life, peddling moonshine to the local folk, and minding his own business. Forrest isn’t bothered about causing trouble – the Bondurant brothers have a reputation: everybody thinks they’re indestructible (by surviving a series of near-death experiences, both Forrest and Howard have earned them this reputation). With that reputation, he doesn’t feel the need to go looking for trouble; and people who know him tend to leave him well alone. That is, until two people arrive from Chicago: the sadistic Special Agent Rakes and the alluring Maggie Beauford. Given Forrest’s story-arc – as I imagine it was on paper – it would be very easy for him to be little more than a poorly fleshed-out caricature. With Tom Hardy playing him, however, you know full well that he is going to be the best damn thing about this movie.
If you haven’t learnt your lesson by now then it’s about time you started realising that Hardy is an actor who you should look out for in movies. Of course there’s always an exception to the rule – McG’s capricious This Means War, which single-handedly brought both Hardy and Star Trek’s Chris Pine down to the level of Reese Witherspoon (herself on Legally Blonde 2 form) – but with Bronson, Inception, Warrior, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Dark Knight Rises and now Lawless under his belt, we can surely forgive him that little slip. He consistently brings something different to each part, really getting under the skin of the character with the kind of method-acting madness of the cinematic legends of old, like Brando and DeNiro. From the elegant “don’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, dear boy” action of Inception, to the tortured scalp-hunter of Tinker Tailor and the sheer brutal power of Warrior; from the poetic psychosis of Bronson to the Auris Goldfinger-esque guttural “I give you permission to die” drawl of the flawed third Nolan/Batman flick, Hardy defines every single performance, injecting each one with something different.
I’ve heard some complaints about his depiction of Forrest, most notably in his particular, peculiar vocals. Hardy himself has stated that he based his speaking style on the Granny in the old Tweety and Sylvester cartoons, and people are complaining that they can’t understand him (much like they did when the Dark Knight Rises IMAX preview before Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol showcased a largely incoherent Bane). Honestly, I didn’t have a problem with his speech. If you can’t hear him, it’s because he’s not actually saying anything – it’s a mumbled “yes” or “ok” – but if it’s anything more you can always make it out, whether it’s the hilarious “I didn’t walk?!” or just the defusing response to Rakes’s baiting.
Without a doubt the best scenes, best lines, best drama, most tension, and best acting comes from his contributions – it’s a quiet, considered, sometimes pent-up, sometimes relaxed (and sometimes shocking) performance which is, again, unlike anything he’s done before. It’s likely to be the thread that elicits the greatest emotional response from you, and stays with you long after the movie closes out. Even though he was bulked up for the role of Bane at the time of filming, Hardy still manages to come across as less of a bruiser and more of a strong family man; a man compelled to take care of his family in the absence of anybody else who will; and a man who genuinely believes in the legend that follows him around, and yet has no ego with it – just the strength to do whatever it takes.
“We’re survivors; we control the fear. And without the fear, we’re all as good as dead.”
Forrest would be a whole lot less interesting without Hardy’s quirky, meticulously-nuanced portrayal. He’s given more room to manoeuvre than any of the other supporting characters – and, for a while, you think that maybe he’s the central character, but that just turns out to be wishful thinking. Which is a shame, as following Hardy’s Forrest for the entirety of this film would have likely been a far better experience than jumping around between him and LaBeouf’s less interesting Jack.
Still, the introduction of Jessica Chastain’s beautiful out-of-towner does give us more time with Forrest, as we watch their romance gradually blossom. It’s one of the most unusual aspects of the piece, too – watching Forrest’s guard slowly go down. Chastain is difficult to keep your eyes off: ethereally alluring in Mallick’s Tree of Life; passionately vulnerable in The Help; and she’s perfect here as an ex-‘dancer’ with a sordid history that leads back to the dirty streets of Chicago – it’s no wonder Forrest has no idea how to deal with her presence in his life. Indeed some of their scenes together are not only sweet and refreshingly honest, but also unexpectedly funny – injecting laugh-out-loud moments that will surprise you almost as much as the sporadic violence shocks you.
Much of that violence is either dished out by, or as a result of the actions of, one Special Agent Rakes, as played by Guy Pearce (Memento, Lockout, Prometheus). The increasingly popular star brings us a truly nasty villain in Rakes – who is modelled to look a little like Billy Drago’s incarnation of mob enforcer Frank Nitti, from another prohibition piece, The Untouchables – and, although you get the feeling that some of his more extreme scenes were never filmed (reportedly Pearce asked that the script be suitably toned down before he came on board), you still get a decent idea what this guy is about: taking pleasure from the pain of others, pure and simple.
I’d have loved to have seen more from Rakes: an entire movie dedicated to the trouble between Rakes and Forrest Bondurant would have been more than enough for me (even if the first confrontation with Jack is pretty effectively brutal), but unfortunately that was not to be and, as a result – despite Pearce’s best efforts – Rakes does remain something of a underdeveloped caricature. But perhaps some of the best villains are.
There’s also Jason Clarke, putting in an interesting turn as the perpetually drunk eldest brother, Howard. Initially you don’t like the guy – there’s simply nothing to like – but, after a while, he grows on you, which is a testament to Clarke, because it can’t be easy doing that with this character. Rounding out the cast we have a nice cameo from Gary Oldman, as notorious mobster Floyd Banner, who doesn’t get any real meat to sink his teeth into – the Tommy Gun clip from the trailer is somewhat misleading: it’s one of only a couple of scenes he’s in – but still makes the most of his colourful part (the aftermath of the spade scene elicits another great laugh).
French cinematographer Benoit Delhomme – who shot Shanghai and Pacino’s latest, Wilde Salome, as well as Hillcoat’s earlier The Proposition – wonderfully captures 30s rural Virginia, practically making it a character unto itself. The drooping trees and dirt tracks; the dark and cold nights, with blurred white flakes of snow fluttering through the engulfing blackness – it’s not just the performances that drive the authenticity of this piece; it’s the rich landscape that’s been painted as a backdrop too.
In fact, in most every scene you’re reminded of the brimming potential that is on offer. Lawless is a brutal, unflinchingly violent gangster drama which is steeped in richly painted atmosphere and populated by some colourful, interesting characters. It just doesn’t quite go anywhere – it’s not just that it doesn’t go in the direction you expect it too, but more that it feels like it doesn’t have much direction at all. Ironically, rather than comparing it to the other big prohibition-era gangster flicks (from The Untouchables to Godfather Part II; Miller’s Crossing to Once Upon a Time in America), Lawless fares better when placed alongside it’s decadent richer cousin, Boardwalk Empire, a fact which makes you wonder whether the story and the characters would have been better served by an HBO miniseries.
Even at almost 2 hours long the film strangely feels somewhat unfinished – unresolved – with the frustratingly anticlimactic closing confrontation and subsequent Lord of the Rings epilogue playing at odds with the carefully considered and reasonably well-paced events that came before. The filmmakers allegedly found it the hardest part to get right – and it shows – with a feeling that, since they didn’t know quite which ending to close on, they’d just use all six instead. And there’s at least one twist too many amidst them.
If there were half marks, I’d have easily pushed for a 7.5/10 – Lawless is probably a ‘high’ 7, and, as such, I certainly still recommend checking it out. Admittedly, given the pedigree – all the elements which were pooled together to create this drama – it’s difficult not to feel marginally disappointed; to feel like there was just something missing, but I’d still take this flawed attempt at glory over any of its more restrained brethren: indeed Lawless stands out for being quite so refreshingly adult and unabashedly violent.
“Do you have any idea what a Thompson submachine-gun does to a mortal?!”
I was hoping that this disjointed little gem would prove all the more endearing on repeat viewings – and, to a certain extent it does, but not quite in the way that I had expected. A second viewing certainly makes the more frustrating elements easier to swallow, but it also softens the impact of the shock scenes, and perhaps even further highlights the meandering way in which the third act plays out. Still, it’s a joy to watch these actors in action – not least Hardy – and it’s worth watching just for his work alone.
Prepare yourself for an interesting, unusual ride – one which is far from perfect, but, if you’re in a forgiving mood, will likely capture your attention and stick with you long afterwards.
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