Down where the willows weep, in rural Virginia, three brothers made names for themselves as moonshiners. Their story comes back to life in Lawless, a fact-based crime drama that's as tough-minded as they come.
Lawless derives from The Wettest County in the World, Matt Bondurant's "novel based on a true story." Bondurant's grandfather Jack, here played by Shia La Beouf, was a Prohibition-era bootlegger, running liquor around the county, one car length ahead of opportunistic rivals and federal agents. The screen Jack has an inferiority complex: treated like the runt of the litter by brothers Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke), immature Jack lets his eagerness to prove his worth inform his every decision.
Forrest believes the Bondurants to be "indestructible," and indeed, they take incredible lickings and keep on ticking, time and time again. Obviously, nothing lasts forever, and the crime family's insistence on invincibility only gives the story a greater sense of dread, compounded by the arrival of creepy interloper Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a special agent from Chicago. Also on the scene: mobster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), a big-timer Jack idolizes and aims to impress.
Though a distinctly American story, Lawless is stocked up with Australian talent: director John Hillcoat, screenwriter Nick Cave (better known as a rocker), and actors Pearce, Clarke and Noah Taylor. They apply an anthropologist's curiosity that yields gritty texture and period details: as shot by Benoît Delhomme, the Tommy guns, running boards and "whites only" signs don't seem like toys for Hollywood playtime, but rather the genuine trappings of 1931 Franklin County.
On the face of it, Lawless may seem like nothing more than an artfully rendered tale of turpitude, and perhaps it isn't. But to some degree, the pointlessness is the point: as Jack explains in voice-over, there's something "indifferent" about the universe that allowed these events to unfold, and references to "war" easily imply a correspondence to the pointless "War on Drugs" and modern Prohibition. It's also a story of men immune to Depression, as they break the law with impunity (criminals and "lawmen" alike).
This material is right in the wheelhouse of Hillcoat, who favors dusty, brutal tales like The Road and The Proposition. Never blinking, Hillcoat proves equally adept at dealing out swift brutality and lively marginalia. The picture is smartly cast, particularly in the supremely centered Hardy, powder-keg Oldman, and florid Pearce. Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska also come to play, as uneasy potential mates to the brothers, but Hillcoat keeps the focus on an ages-old masculine code of survival at any cost and prideful protection of reputation and, by extension, legacy. In recounting "the Great Franklin County Moonshine Conspiracy," Lawless does not lack for local color and local legend.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]