“It is not the violence that sets a man apart. It’s the distance he’s prepared to go.”
These words ring out like a shot once uttered by Tom Hardy in John Hillcoat’s Lawless where he plays Forrest Bondurant, the designated “leader” of the Bondurant brothers as they set about their moon-shining business in Franklin County, Virginia in 1931. Joined by Howard (Jason Clarke) and the youngest of the bunch, Jack (Shia LaBeouf), the Bondurants eventually become the last of the true outlaw bootleggers and Lawless is the story of how they declined to bow to a corrupt law and maintained their own set of principles in their Prohibition-era activities.
Based on Matt Bondurant’s “The Wettest County in the World” telling the story of his grandfather and two granduncles, Lawless is a brutally violent story of bad guy against even badder guy. On one side are the Bondurant boys who, to this point, have been allowed to do as they please with their moon-shining business, but things begin to change once special deputy Charlie Rakes (played by the snarly and sinister Guy Pearce) comes on the scene, demanding payment and regulation. These are rules Forrest and his brothers aren’t ready to abide by even though the rest of the county bends under the pressure.
The question now becomes, if you’re going to stand up to the law just how far are you willing to go? This is the essence of the quote above and something of a religion Forrest Bondurant lives by and is attempting to instill in his younger brother Jack when he says it to him, though words aren’t Forrest’s preferred method of communication.
Forrest would much rather let his brass knuckles do his talking — breaking your nose or crushing your wind pipe. Make no mistake, Lawless is violent in many, many ways and this is just the start of the bloodshed as Rakes has his own amount of pain to dole out. To that point, the film is a rather straight-forward narrative, and while the press notes suggest Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave (who also wrote Hillcoat’s 2005 feature The Proposition) found some modern day parallels even so much as suggesting moon-shining draws some comparison to present day meth, I’m not entirely buying that.
Instead this is a simple portrait of a place in history where neither side was necessarily “right” in their actions. As stupid and ill-conceived as Prohibition was, it was the law and the violent reactions from the Bondurants were still unlawful. On the flip side, the government corruption and insidious nature of Charlie Rakes is equally unjust, and this leads to a couple of issues I did have with the film.
As great as Pearce is as Rakes, his character soon becomes so over-the-top it reaches some ridiculous levels to the point I felt like, “Okay, I get it, this guy is really, really, really bad. Got it.” From the minute we meet him his impish little laugh and slick back hair almost paints him as the devil in a dress suit. Opposite Forrest Bondurant, dressed in tattered old clothes that have probably never been washed, you have a clear cultural divide and yet they are both animals in a sense, though they are fighting for different things.
Hardy remains consistent in once again delivering a character you simply can’t get enough of. Out of all the reasons you may cheer for the Bondurants, one is to likely see Forrest safe through to the end if only to hear him grunt an affirmative one more time. Shia LaBeouf and Jason Clarke are also impressive as Forrest’s brothers. The story essentially follows LaBeouf as Jack and his desire for the finer things and his admiration for the big city gangsters such as Floyd Banner, played by Gary Oldman in only brief moments, but a quick wink to the camera is confirmation Oldman was the man for the job.
The leading ladies of the picture are played by Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska. Chastain’s Maggie is running from the big city life where she was a dancer and winds up on the Bondurants’ doorstep looking for the quieter life. While she clearly went looking in the wrong place, she did find some much needed protection. Wasikowska’s Bertha Minnix is a preacher’s daughter that has caught Jack’s eye and while her father won’t hear of them being together that doesn’t stop the pursuit.
Shot entirely on digital, cinematographer Benoit Delhomme captures some excellent images with the Virginia mountains lending themselves well with lush spring greens, fall oranges, cold winter greys and hunched over trees providing a towering blanket of foliage in the midst of lush forested landscapes. And his camera never wavers from the violence on screen, some of it caught with brutal intensity as the loud wet thuds and gun shots ring throughout the theater.
As the violence wears on, only the film’s attempt for a climactic ending, deviating from the source material’s true conclusion, goes a bit against the film’s authentic nature up to that point. I would have preferred things were kept simple rather than the idea the ending needs to be something big to be appreciated. Otherwise, Lawless is a great film and its great to see Hillcoat back in territory more along the lines of The Proposition rather than his disappointing and somewhat empty adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.