Written by Nick Cave and directed by John Hillcoat, Lawless tells the story of three bootlegging brothers selling home-brewed liquor in prohibition-era America. It is based on the fictional account of the Bondurant family, The Wettest County in the World (2008), written by Matt Bondurant, the grandson of the youngest brother. The film is set in the backwoods of Franklin County, Virginia, once known as the “wettest county in the world” because the home-brew business was so rampant there during prohibition. Lawless follows the Bondurant brothers as they supply moonshine to the Franklin County locals. Before long their operation escalates and the three country boys find themselves involved with big-city gangsters, corrupt officials and violent blood feuds.
For Lawless, Hillcoat has assembled an impressive line-up: Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, Gary Oldman and Shia LeBeouf. The film is worth seeing on the strength of its cast alone. Tom Hardy plays Forrest, the eldest Bondurant brother. He is the slow, lumbering alpha male of the family, a man who always carries a set of brass knuckles in his cardigan pocket just in case. Grunting his way through his lines, Hardy’s physical presence makes Forrest reminiscent of Paulie from Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990). Guy Pearce is cold, camp, and meticulous as Charlie Rakes, the brutal Special Agent from Chicago drafted in to deal with the insubordinate rednecks. The charismatic Floyd Banner is deftly played by Gary Oldman. Banner represents the big-time crime syndicates who want to recruit the Franklin County moonshiners to quench the city’s thirst for liquor. His tools of the trade are Thomson submachine guns and the mixed-up morality of the Capone-style gangster figure.
Lawless focuses on the youngest Bondurant brother, played by Shia LeBeouf, as he struggles to graduate from runt-of-the-litter to man-of-the-house. The influence of the big-time gangsters on the youngest Bondurant brother is evident as he splashes his new-found income on fast cars, and kits himself up in pinstripes and fur coats. The more earthly Forrest, on the other hand, changes from one woollen cardigan to another.
In a film dominated by the aggressive masculinity of the American West, the gender imbalance is reversed (slightly) by two strong female characters. Escaping from the city in search of quietude, the exotic and steadfast Maggie Beauford, played by Jessica Chastain, finds instead the Bondurant brothers. Bertha Minnix, played by Mia Wasikowska, is the love interest for Jack Bondurant. She is a preacher’s daughter and beacon of purity in an ever darkening world.
The film’s original score is composed by Nick Cave and fellow Bad Seed band member Warren Ellis, and performed with the help of a handful of guest vocalists. It plays a big part in the storytelling, instantly transporting the viewer to the film’s time, its place and peoples, be it African-American wake or Quaker prayer service. Panoramic shots of Franklin County likewise give the film some moments of real beauty, particularly the night shots of Franklin County hillsides illuminated by fires from illicit stills.
The Western and the Gangster movie might be two of the most overdone genres in cinema but Lawless plays on the clichés of both well enough not to appear too ridiculous. While connoisseurs of those genres may be able to find fault with the film, they will no doubt appreciate the efforts of Hillcoat and Cave all the same. Far from the perfect blend, Lawless is nevertheless visceral entertainment and highly watchable.