Lawless, at one point known as both The Wettest County in The World and The Promised Land, is the latest feature film from director, John Hillcoat – best known for his adaption of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The movie is an adaptation of Matt Bondurant’s 2008 based-on-true-events novel, The Wettest County in the World, which follows the author’s grandfather, as well as two great-uncles, in their illicit Prohibition-era moonshiner business activities.
In addition to a star-studded cast that includes Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Gary Oldman, and Jessica Chastain, Lawless also reunites Hillcoat with several common collaborators. Actor Guy Pearce, who previously appeared in The Proposition as well as The Road appears as the film’s primary antagonist, Charlie Rakes. Additionally, screenwriter/musician Nick Cave who acted in Ghosts … of the Civil Dead and penned The Proposition story, as well as scored the Proposition and Road soundtracks, delivers the Lawless screenplay and score. Does a sharp stable of proven talent and a best-selling Depression-era source material translate into a riveting look at the dangerous lives of the real life Bondurant Boys?
Fortunately, Lawless is another smart and engrossing adaptation from Hillcoat that successfully balances the personal Bondurant storylines with the larger Great Franklin County Moonshine Conspiracy. In spite of a few awkwardly handled “true-life is stranger than fiction” moments and a number of character arcs that don’t enjoy enough nuanced development, the movie delivers several especially engaging performances – most notably from Pearce, Hardy, and Chastain – while also making room for LaBeouf to ground his star power with a role that requires him to set-aside the hyperactive geek routine that landed him parts in blockbuster franchises like Transformers and Indiana Jones.
As mentioned, Lawless chronicles the true life events surrounding the infamous Bondurant Boys – Jack (LaBeouf), Forrest (Hardy), and Howard (Jason Clarke) – as they run an illegal moonshine business in rural Franklin County, Virginia during prohibition. The film centers primarily around the youngest of the trio, Jack, who despite his timid nature is hungry for a larger role in the family bootlegging business – all while attempting to court the local preacher’s daughter, Bertha Minnix (played by Mia Wasikowska). However, when Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Pearce) begins to squeeze Franklin County moonshiners for a percentage of their profit, no-nonsense Forrest stands firm – putting the brothers’ business practices as well as anyone loosely associated with the Bondurants in the spotlight.
There’s an odd mix of awkward moments sprinkled throughout Lawless – where “true” events are either ham-fisted into the story with cumbersome and disjointed execution or overly-embellished for the sake of the film narrative. However, distilling the larger Great Franklin County Moonshine Conspiracy historical narrative into a captivating and focused character drama is no small feat, even with a series of non-fiction plot points dotting the way, and Hillcoat (as well as Cave) largely succeed in his efforts. Considering the movie’s “real life” source material, and subsequently narrow focus (Lawless only briefly deals with big city gangster types), there’s a surprising amount of strident story material – with a number of violent moments that could make sensitive viewers pretty uncomfortable. Still, the movie never revels in the violence and each instance serves a very necessary purpose – paralleling a chief Lawless theme: intimidation is power.
Visually, the movie is in keeping with Hillcoat’s usual strengths as a director. Where other filmmakers rely on style over substance, Hillcoat once again uses a keen eye to enhance viewer immersion – this time in the rural Virginia landscape. While the grey palette featured in The Road ratcheted up the post-apocalyptic isolation in a uniform and vacuous stretch of seemingly never ending dirt and ash, the colorful and grungy aesthetic in Lawless helps mirror the highs and lows of the Bondurant story progression – as well as juxtapose other elements (race, gender, and class) in The Great Depression.
The core bootlegging storyline rarely falters – thanks in large part a pair of memorable performances from Pearce and Hardy. LaBeouf improves upon many of his past efforts with Jack, delivering a competent central performance – even if he’s easily outshined by a comparatively more nuanced (and more interesting) supporting cast. Pearce’s Special Agent Charlie Rakes is easily one of the most detestable antagonists that moviegoers will see all year. No audience member is likely to root for the Rakes character, given a continuous parade of brutal contributions to the proceedings, but he easily fits into the category of a villain that is charming but fully capable of embodying the unrelenting horrors of the time period. Hardy’s Forrest Bondurant manages a similar balancing act. In spite of his quiet and reserved outward appearance, Forrest is fiercely protective of his family and business. Although, where some audience members might be expecting another hard-hitting bruiser performance from Hardy (Bane, Tommy Conlon, Bronson), the Bondurant leader is a sharp mix of subtle (and sometimes not-as-subtle) reactions to the film’s various events – punctuating each with a telling grunt.
Unfortunately, while most of the supporting characters are fully realized, especially Dane DeHaan’s (Chronicle) Cricket Pate who steals a number of scenes, there are some narrative elements that get muddled along the way. The dynamic between Forrest and Maggie Beauford (Chastain) offers a few entertaining as well as sweet moments (and a good counter-balance to the Jack/Bertha romance) but takes a backseat as other plot points begin to move into the forefront. The thin Forrest/Maggie storyline would be easy to dismiss on its own but it serves as an example of a larger problem in Lawless: a lot of time is spent establishing some of the film’s most intriguing characters (and performers) who are, subsequently, largely pushed to the side – only to be shuffled into their respective real life outcomes by the end. Hillcoat was, no doubt, facing a difficult balancing act, cramming several intimate character arcs, a larger conspiracy drama, and an extensive historical context into a single film and ultimately Lawless is successful but that doesn’t mean there aren’t missed opportunities and a few vestigial threads along the way.
Lawless may not entirely live up to the sum of all its celebrated parts but it succeeds in telling a riveting “true life” historical drama with plenty of entertaining and memorable characters coupled with smart filmmaking choices. A few core story beats aren’t fully realized and there are some awkward moments of truth and fiction balancing but, nevertheless, the movie delivers a brutal and exceptionally honest look at the Bondurant Boys and their fascinating (not to mention dangerous) bootlegging days.
If you’re still on the fence about Lawless, check out the trailer below:
For an in-depth discussion of the film by the Screen Rant team check out the Lawless episode of the SR Underground podcast.
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Lawless is Rated R for strong bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity. Now playing in theaters.