Graphically and disturbingly violent, Lawless is a film not to be dismissed as another period piece about backwoods hicks bucking Prohibition. Its characters are surprisingly rich in nuance and depth and the plot, though simple enough, draws you in and keeps you hanging on till the absolute end. Though unrated, this flick is not for the faint of heart. It contains a few of the most haunting images I’ve ever seen and feels relentless in its portrayal of the lengths some men will go to have their way. Lawless, though set during post-World War I and during The Prohibition, a law that only served to create crime, has very little to say about right or wrong. The protagonists are three brothers running a distillery in the “wettest county in the world” and the antagonist is a special deputy from Chicago come to claim a stake in Franklin county but the battle between them is not your typical lawman vs. outlaw. Early on, the second of the three Bondurant brothers, Forrest (Tom Hardy) tells younger brother, Jack (Shia LeBeouf) that it isn’t the violence that sets men apart from each other but rather the lengths they are willing to go. And that perfectly describes the conflict that drives Lawless. It isn’t about right vs. wrong or even mine vs. yours. It’s about how far a man will go to get what he wants. And for most of the movie it feels, for a couple of these men, there is no limit.
Adapted to the screen by Nick Cave from the novel written by Matt Bondurant (descendant of the men about whom the novel is loosely based), Lawless begins with a myth. The Bondurant boys, Howard (Jason Clarke), Forrest and Jack, are indestructible, as in, unable to be killed whether by man, disease or natural catastrophe. Howard survived The Great War and now runs an illegal moonshine distillery with younger brother Forrest, a strong and quiet business-minded man prone to communicating in incoherent grunts. Only Hardy could give such depth of emotion to this character. Monosyllabic as he may be often be, the man never feels one-note. The youngest Bondurant, Jack wants desperately to be allowed in on the operation but his impulsivity and lack of the brute strength his older brothers exhibit keeps him on the sidelines. That is, until special deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) comes to Franklin county all the way from Chicago and ruins the harmonious balance struck between the county’s law enforcement and its countless bootleggers. Rakes has no intention of eradicating moonshine. He’s not here to clean the place up. He simply wants a share in the profits in exchange for turning a blind eye. All of the county’s many bootleggers step in line except, of course, for the Bondurant brothers, who are men of principle and will lie down for no one.
Pearce commits to the role of the twisted sociopath Rakes with scary intensity. At times, he exercises shocking restraint, inflicting wild and brutal violence with detached control. At others, he is so entirely unhinged, you can’t fathom what he may be capable of. LaBeouf plays his role with a raw vulnerability that keeps you in his corner even when he’s making the stupidest of choices. And Hardy, as I’ve come to expect from him, manages somehow to convey a wealth of emotion with few (if any) words and little (though powerful) action. It seems effortless for him to make even the smallest movement expressive, as though he can’t help it, as though it just oozes from his pores. Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowski, the only women in the movie, give engaging performances as two very different kinds of women and Dane DeHaan (of Chronicle) as Cricket, Jack’s naive and sweetly innocent friend, provides a much-needed respite from the film’s dark and violent tone.
There is no score to speak of which serves to make the violence feel all the more real. Director John Hillcoat doesn’t rely on music to create suspense or punctuate turning points. He uses a combination of graphic and gorgeous images to capture the simultaneous savagery and beauty of Franklin county and its inhabitants. Hillcoat and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme juxtapose between soft, tender shots of hanging willows and still nights and the tense focus of Rakes’s merciless cruelty or Forrest’s powerfully quiet anger.
The violence itself is a character in the film, insidious and pervasive and unnervingly frank. Never does it feel excessive or gratuitous but rather, necessary. Rakes sets out to prove to the Bondurants that he is not to be rebuffed and to Franklin county that not even Forrest Bondurant is immortal and the Bondurant brothers meet his barbarity with equally ruthless malice. None will stand down and because of that, no one and nothing feels safe. Forrest seems to really believe he is invincible and, much as you want to believe it too, in the aptly titled Lawless, there is no law that can’t be broken, no line that can’t be crossed.