Sometimes foreigners can better limn the contours of another nation’s historical actions. In Lawless (newly released on Blu-ray/DVD), Australian director John Hillcoat and Australian screenwriter-musician-novelist—oh, hell—Renaissance man Nick Cave take on an infamously key part of American history: 1930s bootlegging.
Based on the true-story novel The Wettest County In the World, by Matt Bondurant, grandson in a family with a moonshine bloodline, Lawless follows the Bondurant brothers Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia LaBeouf), as they struggle to retain their bootlegging business against the pressures of crooked cops and Chicago gangsters.
The story is, in many ways, a classic American tale: a Mom-and-Pop operation fights enterprising Big City interlopers. By honing in on one such family business, Hillcoat and Cave conjure a Western-gangster film hybrid that is tough, tender and telling.
The Bondurant’s run a fairly successful, but primarily local, bootlegging business in Franklin County, Virginia. When youngest brother Jack attempts to prove himself by expanding the business out into greater urban pastures, the brothers are led into a large-scale blood-feud that they or may not be up to.
Just as his character, oldest brother Forrest, dominates the Bondurant family, actor Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises, 2012) presides over the film with an effortless power. A laconic mumbler with a vicious right-hook (assisted by brass knuckles), Forrest Bondurant is considered “indestructible” by the locals. After getting his throat gashed open, his already low-decibel voice becomes a kind of lethal whisper in which every word emits menace.
Apparently, the real-life Forrest was just as durable and formidable, surviving bullets and beatings with pioneer-resilience, eventually succumbing only to biology—he was killed by pneumonia. In the film, when Forrest tells Jack, “It’s not the violence that sets [a man] apart, it is the distance he is prepared to go,” one senses immediately that Hardy’s Forrest is one man who is prepared to go all the way.
As brother Jack, Shia LaBeouf gets to sink his teeth into a role that is far meatier than his characters in Transformers (2007, 2011) or Disturbia (2007). Though Jack is the youngest brother, he has the highest aspirations—or lowest, depending on where one stands, as this exchange makes explicit:
“You’re an outlaw, Jack.”
“It’s just a matter of perspective.”
Though meant to encapsulate and compress narrative points and exposition, the voice-over narration by LeBeouf’s Jack seems too intermittent and ultimately unnecessary, as Hillcoat’s visuals and Nick Cave’s dialogue resonate enough without it:
“You hand me that cash or I’m gonna cut some daylight into you.”
“You fucking hicks are a sideshow unto yourselves.”
“This ain’t Chicago.”
Hillcoat, who has previously directed Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic The Road (2009), the violent, impressionistic Western The Proposition (2005) and a truly odd prison-exposé-like film Ghosts Of The Civil Dead (1988), has a great eye for dirt, grit, spit and blood. He also has a great ear: the sound design on his films, Lawless included, is richly detailed, especially in the gunplay, with bullets tinging off metal or absorbed with proper oomph by soft materials such as human flesh.
Others in the film include Guy Pearce as corrupt lawman Charley Rakes, a perfumed but deadly dandy with shaved eyebrows and a razor-sharp haircut split down his skull. When Rakes captures Jack’s sidekick-with-rickets Cricket (an impressive Dane DeHaan), one’s stomach sinks: innocence meets ghastliness for what can only be an ignoble end.
Gary Oldman plays a kind of Chicago Gangster synecdoche named Floyd Banner, a too-small but still reverberant role. Cleary young Jack admires Banner, who threatens to supplant Forrest’s paternal authority. I kept waiting for a showdown between the two father-figures Forrest and Banner, or the two ruthless near-allegorical villains, Rakes and Banner (and thus the three powerhouse actors, Hardy, Pearce and Oldman), but unfortunately it never materialized.
There are also two touching romances, one between LaBeouf’s Jack and a Mennonite girl played by Mia Wasikowska, and another between Hardy’s Forrest and Jessica Chastain’s Maggie, a Chicago callgirl transplanted to the Virginia hills, of whom Pearce’s character says, “I ain’t the kind to drink from a greasy cup.” Initially Forrest resists Maggie’s charms with an ascetic resolve, lest his malevolent energy and “strength of character” soften or dissipate. When Maggie finally appears naked in his bedroom, Forrest’s initiative and clarity of purpose are, for the first and only time, stammered.
There are some extremely violent, er, touches: Forrest’s throat split wide open; a man getting his testicles lopped-off and delivered in a paper bag; and another tarred and feathered until he resembles a molting vulture.
The film’s music, also by Cave and his longtime collaborator Warren Ellis, is ingeniously anachronistic: for example, a montage of the Bondurant’s burgeoning booze biz is set to a bluegrass version of the Velvet Underground’s amphetamine anthem “White Light/White Heat”, a song that also ends the film in a brilliant take by legendary country singer Ralph Stanley. And there are some highly atmospheric numbers by Emmylou Harris, whose reedy voice slips between one’s ribs, straight to the heart.
Special features include a commentary by director Hillcoat and author Matt Bondurant; a redundant selection of deleted scenes; short documentaries on the film and the historical Bondurant family; and a Willie Nelson music video.