Set in Prohibition-era Virginia, Lawless tells the story of the Bondurant brothers, three moonshiners who operate in Franklin County where they are a law unto themselves. The pristine pine trees of the lush Virginian forests serve as the backdrop and cover to their well-oiled illegal operations, but they really have nothing to hide as the alcohol they produce serves as the lifeblood of their decrepit community during the tough economic times. The brothers fill up the bars of Virginia with their home-brewed concoctions, achieving a mythical reputation and becoming local legends themselves known for their invincibility and steely grit. But where there’s money to be had, the people who want a slice of the pie emerge from the woodworks and try to insert themselves into the supply chain. The Bondurants are forced to decide just how much thicker blood is compared to their moonshined whiskey.
Lawless is an exquisite movie that effortlessly features the beauty of the American frontier. Director John Hillcoat has a talent for juxtaposing violence and waste with the magnificence of nature, highlighting the pointless brutality of the former and the infinite breadth of the latter. He trades the whites and grays of the post-apocalyptic, barren world of The Road for a much more fertile palette of greens and browns for this film, but the same effect is achieved. Against the wide stretch of their untouched surroundings, the harshness of the Bondurants’ lives seem unnatural and out of place, but we quickly realize that it is necessary for them to survive.
As in the book The Wettest County in the World from which the movie is based off of, the youngest brother Jack (Shia Labeouf) is the most interesting of the three. In some sense, the movie is a coming-of-age story for him, as he steps out of his older brothers’ shadows and transforms himself from a timid, helpless boy dependent on his brothers’ protection to a capable young man who proves to be more ambitious and in some ways darker compared to the elder Bordurants. He has his eyes set on the preacher’s daughter Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), providing another source of inspiration for his drive towards backwater success. He has the most to prove, just like Labeouf who has been, as of late, typecasted into trivial roles of no consequence such as in the Transformers series. Here Labeouf straps on a midwestern accent and uses his earnestness to make his character possess a wide-eyed, sincere look at the world that draws you in and makes you want to root for him. Needless to say, he is excellent in the role. The other two Bordurant brothers were not given the same fullness of character as Jack, but manage to be interesting in their own tiny ways. Howard (Jason Clarke) spent some time during the war and serves as the muscle behind their business. He’s a bit hollowed out by his experience, but he maintains the sense to know when to fight. Forrest (Tom Hardy) is more pensive and detached, and acts as the mastermind and leader to his brothers. He hardly talks, and when he does so, its usually punctuated by grunts that can be taken to mean anything, but underneath his stoic exterior is a good old-fashioned family man.
The villain they face is the eyebrow-shaven Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a newly appointed deputy determined to put an end to the brothers’ exploits. Their heated confrontations lead to scenes of shocking violence that eviscerates and jolts. Hillcoat is not afraid to show with heedless candor the blood that is spilt that lets the Bondurants keep on making alcohol, but the movie’s pace is always constantly set at a slow, meditative crawl. This isn’t a problem, in fact it is a testament to the restraint and care that Hillcoat has taken to arrive at an almost flawlessly composed film. Where he takes some missteps is in the handling of the entire cabal of characters, some of which feel like they needed to be given more time in order for us to fully appreciate the roles they play in the lives of the Bordurants. This includes Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a vixen with an ambiguous past who Forrest falls in love with, and Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), a notorious gangster whom Jack aspires to be like. Hillcoat shows us a beautiful natural world indeed, but the social world he paints feels incomplete and wastes the superior talents of Chastain and Oldman. He may have gotten the view and the smells right, but it is best to go read the book if you’re looking for a better story.