REVIEW: Lawless [2012]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 116 minutes | Release Date: August 29th, 2012 (USA)
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Director(s): John Hillcoat
Writer(s): Nick Cave / Matt Bondurant (novel The Wettest County in the World)

“You still have the price tag on your coat”

After The Proposition‘s grit and The Road‘s nightmarish post-apocalyptic vision, watching the trailer for John Hillcoat‘s newest film Lawless left a little something to be desired. Looking like an action flick about bootleggers standing against the law in a blaze of glory, all nuance from its showcase of familial strength and honor was missing. Based on an historical novel written by its subject’s grandson Matt BondurantThe Wettest County in the World—this is the heroic legend of three indestructible brothers refusing to let Franklin County, Virginia be compromised during Prohibition. Once the area’s other moonshiners folded under police corruption, the Bondurants stood strong to grow more successful and invincible as a result. It’s only when they began believing their own legend that the realities of their situation threatened to tear them apart.

Adapted by Hillcoat’s frequent collaborator Nick Cave, the film is deliberately paced as it unfolds to introduce our narrator Jack (Shia LaBeouf) and his brothers, Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke). The youngest of the trio, Jack is relegated to driving the car while the more unpredictable pair handles the action by selling their “White Lightning” around town. Lost in the shadows of his siblings’ fearsome personas, the boy’s inability to hold his own against abusers makes any rapid ascent through the business moot. Over-confident and forward thinking, however, his drive to be more than a lackey pushes him to live up to his last name by getting involved with the notorious Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman). Forcing Forrest and Howard to acknowledge what he has to offer, this autonomous decision will ultimately put them face-to-face with destiny.

The Franklin County we meet at the start drastically changes shape as its hotbed of alcohol production marks it for heavy police interference. What’s first a quiet town whose Sheriff (Bill Camp) happily looks the other way after buying a couple cases of liquor is soon turned upside down by the arrival of a corrupt official and his sociopathic cohort Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce). Able to put on the fake smile to cajole the known distillers into cutting his employer into their businesses, Rakes also has the cold scowl to demonstrate his power. Possessed with dark proclivities, all must quickly fall in line or get tarred and feathered for their trouble. Only the Bondurants refuse to bend, escalating his wrath into a personal vendetta to prove the brothers are mortal after all.

Much like Hillcoat’s previous films, Lawless is dripping with period/environmental authenticity as the 1930s come to life before our eyes. We catch glimpses of the numerous ways of living throughout the nation with Jack’s sweetheart-to-be Bertha’s (Mia Wasikowska) religious devotion, the boys’ bartender Maggie’s (Jessica Chastain) past inside Chicago’s big city, and the amorality of gangsters like Banner and his henchman Gummy Walsh (Noah Taylor). Everyone is converging towards the countryside as they use it for a home, an escape, or a food source—each exploiting it to fulfill their own selfish desires. So it’s no surprise to find Sheriff Hodges toeing the line between bootleggers and the law as a means of survival from each, nor the Bondurants finding themselves expanding their business and legend despite the tumultuous times

While the fighting necessary to keep their illegal activities going is violent, it comes in the form of short bursts spilling blood amidst the more lyrical, sweeping construction. At its core the film is a love letter to its author’s heritage and how he came to be from a volatile, unyielding past. His grandfather Jack becomes the perfect entry point since he was the first to look beyond brute force. But while the Bondurant’s business increased tenfold due to his halfcocked schemes, it would have been nothing without Forrest and Howard’s formidably stubborn beasts. The former’s quietly calculating strength and the latter’s drunken insanity hold enemies at bay through a complete disregard for authority. The Bondurants never compromised before and these two aren’t going to start. It’s family first and the rest be damned.

In that vein we watch all three of the brothers do whatever it takes to survive while also softening to the inevitably less dangerous future where alcohol would again be legal. A compassionate bunch when not on an opposing side, they take in Maggie to work their saloon and give local cripple Cricket (Dane DeHaan) the task of working their stills. Each is family with or without a blood bond and Rakes does his worst after realizing the brothers care for nothing more. Pearce is a crazed, duplicitous force in this regard, relentlessly hunting them down with or without hired stooges. The story’s main villain, Rakes is also one of its most carefully manufactured roles from affectation to hairstyle to laugh. This juxtaposition of appearance and actions help make him colorfully unpredictable as well.

While flashy chewing the scenery, though, Pearce is still overshadowed by a show-stealing Tom Hardy. A man who cheated death before, his Forrest doesn’t understand the word fear let alone show it. As the default patriarch now, he controls the operation and ensures its protection. Steely-eyed and tight-lipped, we easily begin to hear his grunt-like sighs as conversations with demeanor trumping words. Menacing, sensitive, cunning, and loyal at the same time, he leads while Howard follows and Jack rebels. Lawless may center upon the youngest reaching beyond his means and getting burned, but Forrest is who grabs your attention and reminds you who’s in charge. Very few possess Hardy’s extreme, natural mix of intensity and softness and this is just one more example of his genius.

[1] Tom Hardy as Forrest in LAWLESS Photo: Richard Foreman, Jr., SMPSP
[2] Tom Hardy as Forrest and Jessica Chastain as Maggie in LAWLESS Photo: Richard Foreman, Jr., SMPSP/ The Weinstein Company
[3] Shia LaBeouf as Jack and Mia Wasikowska as Bertha in LAWLESS Photo: Richard Foreman, Jr., SMPSP/ The Weinstein Company

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