In his latest film John Hillcoat delivers a fantastic period-piece film based on the book “The Wettest County in the World” (an account of the true-life tales of author Matt Bondurant’s family). Titled simply Lawless this adaptation chronicles the events around the Bondurant family at the pinnacle of their prohibition-era moonshine business and how three Virginia brothers became legends unto themselves. Historically party to and at the center of the infamous “Franklin county moonshine conspiracy” the trio faced opposition on many fronts not just from the authorities but also bigger and similarly illegal outfits. A wild ride for any film fan the events depicted become even more engaging as it’s revealed that their story is true…well true-ish.
At a pivotal time in American history, numerous Prohibition-era residents ran small time distilleries in attempts to make a living. The Virginia-based Bondurants had a knack for these backwoods dealings and took a lion’s share of the profit. As with any successful business they saw an influx of customers but also other illegal outfits who wanted a piece of their pie. The entire story follows the government crackdown on the famous Bondurants but at its core Lawless is really about the family’s survival. Beyond keeping local law off their backs now the brothers have to contend with government agents and the Chicago mob. Hillcoat wastes no time immersing the audience in story and uses great imagery/camera work to really sell the scale and setting of the film. In one very short but establishing sequence we see a nighttime shot of the quiet mountains to get a small idea of what it was to be in that time and setting. Lit first by only the moon and stars, the whole mountain starts to comes alive as plumes of flame, one by one, are expelled from moonshiner distillers showing just how many people were contributing to and profiting from Prohibition. It’s small but important touches like that which makes Hillcoat’s films so rich.
Hillcoat continues to take a slow boat approach and for a film about gangsters, guns and booze there are far less chases and shootout than expected. That’s because it’s all about the human element and in the vein of Winding Refn’s Drive or more fittingly Hillcoat’s The Road this slower-paced and muted film effectively ratchets the tension and then wildly springs on you. Many gangster films show a glamorous side to the characters but as Hillcoat and Nick Cave are adapting a novel about real people/events (both of a less than glamorous nature) there’s more to it than focusing on young men, their materialistic desire to be rich & famous and their eventual rise and fall. This story is about their last stand but more importantly the drama of their family unit. The dynamic of the brothers is engaging as they are all so different and embody unique characteristics which fully rounds them out; the upstart Jack (Shia LaBeouf), the taciturn enforcer Howard (Jason Clarke ) and Forrest (Tom Hardy) the so-called immortal.
Shia LaBeouf plays the youngest brother Jack surprisingly well as he embodies that universal desire to be the alpha male. He poses in front of the car with guns at the ready, tries to get the girl and with his partner in crime (Chronicle‘s Dane DeHaan) he sets off to play “big time moonshiner” even making deals with the mob. But by taking part in his family’s unethical business he soon gets into trouble as he’s always trying on pants that are just a bit too large for him. He walks the line of a man but compared to his brothers he’s still a kid and Jack’s got lots to learn, first of which is survival. Forrest’s (Hardy’s) attempts to protect his family and be the father/mother to his brothers has him constantly looking out for them. In one scene he tells Jack that “it is not the violence that sets a man apart, it is the distance he’s prepared to go“, further that to protect yourself and similarly make people fear you, you have to control one’s fear which, recalling the very opening scene of the film, has always been a problem for Jack.
Beyond LaBeouf’s competent turn, the all-star cast just shines and one high point is without doubt Gary Oldman. The master thespian, in his mere 5 or so minutes of screen time Oldman accomplishes two things simultaneously; he proves that he plays the best and most charismatic villain of any actor currently working and that he’s criminally underused here. Jessica Chastain does a little more with her material but while not exactly the damsel in distress, she’s looking for solace and a fresh start but soon plays at being Forrest’s love interest despite his reluctance to accept her advances. Chastain is a fine addition as a supporting character and with her effortless confidence and poise will continue to be a major force in Hollywood. Guy Pearce however eclipses them all as his slimy and vile intensity (recalling Jeffrey Combs’ turn in The Frighteners) is as off-putting as it is magnetic. As the Chicago cop muscling the Bondurants he is lethal, conniving, without remorse and it’s probably the best role he’s ever played.
Still none of the cast can hold a candle to the portrayal of Forrest Bondurant played strikingly by Tom Hardy. Hardy brings to the role both a paternal and maternal presence and manages to speak volumes even though his delivery is headlined by a series of southern-infused grunts (likened to a Virginian version of The Penguin). As comical as it can be numerous times, his delivery and the caliber of acting will literally make the audience gasp. He’s like a lion; slow to be provoked but unstoppable once riled. Even so he’s more than just a man of few words and lethal response. As legend and history have it, Forrest’s Rasputin-like vitality caused many, even him, to believe he really was immortal. It was perhaps the desire to protect his family that heightened the perception that he was impossible to kill; if anything, compared to the stories/biography his resurrections here are actually underplayed. But above all the fine turns it is Hardy who owns the film balancing the reservation and delicacy of a love story with the force required to protect his family and business.
With a double dose of help from Nick Cave (writing the screenplay and contributing the film’s contemporary score/soundtrack) Hillcoat crafts a gripping adaptation which is one of the finest and most engaging gangster flicks to hit theaters in a long time. Lawless is fierce, unflinching and mesmerizing, but also contains a lot of heart, legitimate family drama, and is also, surprisingly, very funny. As it seems that the film (and even TV world) has once again found a renewed interest in gangster properties that sometimes can be quite derivative and/or overdone, this backwoods outlaw story manages to feel fresh, interesting and quite endearing. A taut roller coaster that is simply exceptional filmmaking, Lawles