December 10, 2012
Based on the historical novel The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, Lawless (2012) is a fictionalized depiction of the Prohibition-era bootlegging practices of the Bondurant family. The book got the attention of Australian filmmaker John Hillcoat, who received international acclaim for his gritty western The Proposition (2005) and the bleak post-apocalyptic drama The Road (2009). Expectations were high for Lawless, which was in development for three years resulting in its original lead actors to depart save for Shia LaBeouf who saw it as an opportunity to show the world that we was more than the Transformers poster boy.
It is 1931 and Forrest (Hardy), Jack (LaBeouf) and Howard (Clarke) Bondurant run a successful moonshine business in Franklin County, Virginia. In fact, business is so good that Franklin is known as the “Wettest County” on account of how much moonshine is made and sold. Jack is the youngest sibling and drives his brothers on their deliveries. He wants to be more deeply involved but Forrest prefers to keep him on the periphery as a way of protecting him. However, Jack witnesses big-time gangster Floyd Banner (Oldman) gun down a rival in broad daylight, which only makes him want to get more involved.
One day, a beautiful woman named Maggie Beauford (Chastain) blows into town from Chicago looking for work at the Bondurant’s place of business. Soon after, Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Pearce) from the city arrives to help local law enforcement take a chunk of the local moonshiners’ profits, which doesn’t sit too well with Forrest who rebuffs their offer. This starts an all-out war between Rakes and the Bondurants.
While Shia LaBeouf and Jason Clarke acquit themselves admirably, it is Tom Hardy and Guy Pearce that walk away with the film playing radically different yet equally colorful characters. With his imposing, stocky frame and Brando mumble, Hardy delivers a very physical performance playing a man of few words because he can convey more with a look and the way he carries himself. Pearce, on the other hand, plays a character who talks a fine game and intimidates these country bootleggers with his fancy talk and dapper attire. Both actors fully commit to their roles with the very specific accents they adopt, the clothing they wear and, most importantly, how they interact with other characters. The scene where Forrest and Rakes meet for the first time is absolutely riveting to watch as we see two actors working on a whole other level.
Director Hillcoat juxtaposes stunning shots of the beautiful country with ugly episodes of brutal violence in an excellent depiction of a fascinating period of American history. The lack of sympathetic characters and the unflinching, graphic violence probably turned off some. Lawless certainly took a hammering from several mainstream critics who felt it fell short of being the crime epic it aspired to be. Time will tell how the film holds up over the years and how it will be regarded. One has to admire Hillcoat’s ambition and dedication to get the film made outside of the Hollywood system. He and his collaborators have created a tough, uncompromising film.
There is an audio commentary by director John Hillcoat and author Matt Bondurant. From the outset, Bondurant admits that his book is a “fictionalized reimagining” of his grandfather and his brothers. Although, he did try to stick as close to the facts as possible – something that Hillcoat tried to do with the film. The director and Bondurant make a good team with the former covering various aspects of the film while the latter pointing out what is true to his book.
There are six deleted scenes that sees underrated character actor Jason Clarke get more screen-time to develop his character, including a nice moment between Jack and Howard. Most of this footage adds little and was rightly cut.
“Lawless: The True Story of the Wettest County in the World” sees Matt Bondurant taking us back to the origins of his book and his fascination with his grandfather’s moonshine business. Key cast and crew members talk about the Bondurants and the times in which they lived in.
“Franklin County, Virginia: Then and Now” takes a look at the place in which the film is set, juxtaposing what it’s like now with what it was like back in the 1930s. This featurette examines how the moonshine business started and why.
Finally, there is a music video for “Midnight Run” by Willie Nelson, which is basically a glorified trailer for the film.