The twelve-year run of prohibition in the United States was a period that punctuated social imparity, religious activism, and was a launchpad for some of the biggest names in organized crime. Basically, it’s a mixed bag of deeply interesting subject matter that is spot-on perfect for the big screen. Director John Hillcoat‘s Lawless is a violent slice of that era’s dying days.
Distilled by screenwriter Nick Cave from the pages of Matt Bondurant‘s 2008 historical novel, “The Wettest County in the World,” Lawless tells the story of the Bondurant brothers, a family of moonshiners in the Blue Ridge Foothills of Franklin County, Virginia. In the midst of the Great Depression, the citizenry of Franklin County carved a living out of making moonshine, and none are more successful than the brothers Bondurant, who run a healthy bootlegging racket.
Older brother Howard (Jason Clarke) provides the muscle, whilst youngest brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf) handles driving duty, and a basic inability to make any logical decision. Running the show is middle brother, Forrest (Tom Hardy), who is both the brains and inhumanly tough brawn of the outfit. The Bondurants’ world is relatively simple until the big city badness of Chicago begins creeping in on their quiet rural operation in the form of gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), and most unpleasantly, Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce). The arrival of Rakes turns the once wet county-friendly local authorities into hired goons, and his demand for payoff is met with reluctant acceptance from all but the stalwart Forrest, who threatens blood if Rakes or anyone else encroaches upon his living.
This is the beginning of the Bondurants’ exceptionally violent trials and tribulations, but also where much of the story loses its edge and stutters. Like the book, LaBeouf’s Jack holds focus in the form of a violent coming of age, mixed with his pursuit of local preacher’s daughter Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska). Jack’s decisions are based on his desire to wrest himself from the shadows of his mythic older siblings, while getting the girl. Sadly, the gritty set-up suffers from the focus, and the rest of the stellar cast often feel like an afterthought to a dopey love story that’s simply not interesting. When not attempting to establish himself as a success in his brothers’ eyes, or purchasing his way into Bertha’s heart, Jack is quite literally responsible for almost every horrible thing that befalls his family and friends due to maddening stupidity. He is often an unsympathetic kinda-sorta protagonist, which makes it difficult to justify Cave’s decision not to take the story another direction, or at the very least allow Jack to learn his lesson at some point. He never does.
Forrest’s growing chemistry with big city beauty, Maggie (Jessica Chastain), is infinitely more appealing, as is Hardy’s presence in general. Keeping with his ability to do much with little, Hardy once again conveys simmering emotion with simple looks and gestures. When he does break the silence or use his fists, you’re absolutely paying attention. Hardy dominates the screen and absolutely robs scenes from his counterparts.
Guy Pearce plays Charlie Rakes like a character out of a Dick Tracy comic, Rakes is a caricature of a real human being, preening, psychotically OCD, and repulsive. He’s a boogeyman in a waistcoat that relishes raining down violence on his fellow man, but desperately wants a moist towel and a bar of soap immediately after doing so. Pearce appears to be having nothing but fun with the character, and in that the audience did the same.
A criminal misstep is the afterthought that is Gary Oldman’s Floyd Banner. If there were any doubt that Oldman could still pull off mean and imposing, his portrayal of Banner will remind you why he spent so much of his early career playing fantastically cruel characters. In what had to be less than ten minutes of screen time, Oldman chews up scenes as a Chicago gangster gone rural taking his piece of the bootlegging pie. That he never shares the screen with Hardy is a true wasted opportunity on the part of writer and director.
In the end, Lawless telegraphs too many of its punches, the progression of story rarely surprises, and the rich period Hillcoat has at his disposal never feels like it gets its complete due. Where Hillcoat’s The Road managed to pull all of the most vital elements of Cormac McCarthy’s novel into the film thanks to Joe Penhall’s excellent adaptation, Cave simply misses some of his beats. Still, Lawless does not completely fail; it’s carried by a stellar cast, the gorgeous cinematography of Benoît Delhomme (1408, The Proposition), and just enough scenes sing to make it worth a view. It still may leave you wishing for a film with a deeper handful of the earthy, moonshine- and gunpowder-tinged world the Bondurant brothers inhabited.
The Upside: Tom Hardy is flawless as Forrest, the cinematography is stunning, and Gary Oldman is show-stealing in his unforgivably short time on screen. Chastain plays tough and vulnerable all at once, and is effortlessly sexy; her character plays well against Hardy’s country boy falling awkwardly in love. Guy Pearce is a fantastically creepy cartoon character.
The Downside: Entirely too much Jack, not nearly enough Forrest, Oldman, or poor Jason Clarke as Howard. Cave’s adaptation offers few narrative surprises, and sadly it’s very evident a deeply engaging story was not fully utilized.
On the Side: “The Wettest County in the World” author Matt Bondurant is the grandson of Jack, and based his story on what legitimate historical accounts were available, while filling in the blanks himself.