A film review by Craig J. Koban September 5, 2012


2012, R, 104 mins.


Jack: Shia LaBeouf / Forrest: Tom Hardy / Howard: Jason Clarke / Charlie: Guy Pearce / Maggie: Jessica Chastain / Floyd: Gary Oldman

Directed by John Hillcoat / Written by Nick Cave, based on the book by Matt Bondurant.

LAWLESS is THE GODFATHER of Prohibition-era hillbilly films.  A somewhat fictionalized account of Matt Bondurant’s novel THE WETTEST COUNTY IN THE WORLD – which, in turn, was based on his own grandfather and great uncle’s struggles as moonshiners in Depression ravaged Virginia - the film is unequivocally about unwholesome and sometimes grotesque people, so much so that all parties “good” and “bad” commit acts of such brutality that it’s difficult at times to disseminate the heroes from the villains.  LAWLESS is a blood-soaked tale of friendship, loyalty, betrayal and fending for one’s rights using any means necessary within a self-contained vacuum of immoral ethics.  As one of the protagonists in the film tells his brother, “It is not the violence that sets a man apart.  It’s the distance he’s prepared to go.” 

I can see why the film’s director - the Aussie-born, Canadian-raised John Hillcoat - was attracted to this type of material.  He made, for my money, one of the most atmospheric westerns I’ve ever seen in 2006’s THE PROPOSITION (making my Ten Best Films list of that year), which was - like LAWLESS - a film about unscrupulous lawman facing off against a battalion of brothers in arms.  He also made the unforgettable post-apocalyptic drama THE ROAD in 2009 (which also made my Ten Best Films list of that year) that told a poignant and heart-rending tale of a small family unit that strived to stay alive when faced with insurmountable hardships.  Hillcoat carries many of these themes and aesthetic sensibilities forward in LAWLESS in the manner that he envisions a world that is violently authentic and simmers with a stunning sense of period and time.  The environment of LAWLESS may seem less epic and mythic in scale when compared to THE PROPOSITION and THE ROAD, but Hillcoat nonetheless captures the oppressiveness of the desperate era while, at the same time, highlighting the underlining malice of all its characters. 

The story takes place in 1930’s Franklin County where the Bondurant brothers reside, made up of the soft-spoken and weakly Jack (Shia LaBeouf); the hot headed and ill-tempered Howard (Jason Clarke); and the gruff, introverted, and monosyllabic ring leader Forrest (Tom Hardy, his first film appearance since THE DARK KNIGHT RISES).  Since this is Prohibition times, the brothers have turned to bootlegging to earn a living, but they are certainly not the only ones aspiring to do so.  Their fledging operation is threatened with the appearance of Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (an unrecognizable Guy Pearce), a Chicagoan that wishes to stop those that violate the country’s laws.  Rakes is, alas, no righteous and noble minded Elliot Ness; conversely, he’s a frighteningly unhinged psycho that’s in deep with the mob and wants to take a large part of the Bondurant’s "action" with or without their cooperation.  Predictably, all proverbial hell breaks loose when the brothers refuse to back down, as they’d rather die than let some deplorable lawman from the big city take their moonshine away.  



Pigeonholed somewhat randomly into the narrative – written by Nick Cave, who also worked with Hillcoat on THE PROPOSITION – are a few subplots of varying degrees of interest involving two ladies that find their way into the brothers’ lives and business.  There’s the story of Maggie Beauford (the gorgeous Jessica Chastain), a former exotic dancer from the Windy City that left it to find peace in the quiet, backwater serenity of Virginia, but ironically finds herself embroiled in more bloodshed when she forges a relationship with Forrest.  The second woman is a preacher’s daughter (Mia Wasikowska) that is being romanced by Jack in a somewhat sweet and tender subplot that never gestates with the dramatic payoff that it should have.  The underlining plot developments involving LaBeouf’s greenhorn kid that learns to shut-up and man-up, defend himself, and protect his family’s interest sort of careens about with a nagging predictability. 

Yet, those are minor quibbles, because LAWLESS still highlights Hillcoat as a filmmaker with an acute grasp of mood, tension, and atmosphere.  Working with the beautiful and foreboding compositions of cinematographer Benoit Delhomme, Hillcoat stir ups the remoteness and dust-covered intimacy of his low key and small-scale period settings while channeling a sense of unease and menace.  Wisely, the film never paints the Bondurant boys as innocent saints, nor does it glamorize them as pulp heroes: they are flawed and unhealthily prideful men driven to wanton acts of vicious comeuppance when compelled to.  Most of the nail-biting tension in the film is generated with the anticipation of just how badly one party will retaliate on the other.  At certain points in LAWLESS you’re really left wondering whether anyone will make it out of this film alive.  Hilllcoat never shies away from the inherent barbarism in the story either, which only amps up the edgy nihilism that much more. 

Some films are lucky to have one great performance; LAWLESS has two.  Firstly, there’s Pearce as the freakishly compulsive and power hungry Rakes that sinisterly parades around in the film sporting finely tailored suits, a pungent aroma of overused cologne, plucked-out eyebrows and a hairline slicked back and parted down the middle by what appears to be a large caliber bullet.  He may outwardly appear effeminate, but underneath lurks a cruel and despotic madman.  Secondly, there’s Tom Hardy, who creates a macho and tough exterior in Forrest that often communicates with low and inaudible grunts that manages to speak volumes at key times in ways that several words would never accomplish.  Watching Hardy as the elder Bondurant – who seems to use his raw physicality, stillness, and penetrating gaze to weaken his opponents up for the kill – I’m reminded as to why he’s such a mesmerizing screen presence.  Those that doubt that assertion have never seen BRONSON, WARRIOR, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES…or LAWLESS, for that matter.  When Hardy’s broad-shouldered frame and low simmering intensity enters a scene he’s impossible to gaze away from. 

Jessica Chastain does what she can with a largely formulaic role of the beauty that tames Hardy’s beast, but it’s a testament to her as an authoritative actress that she can hold her own in scenes against Hardy and Pearce with a real feisty conviction.  Shia LeBeouf makes viewers forget about how shrill and borderline obnoxious he was in the TRANSFORMERS films by reminding us here in LAWLESS how quietly and persuasively he can tap into his characters.  Gary Oldman – one of the great thespian chameleons – shows up in a far-too-brief, but memorable turn as mob man Floyd Banner that finds himself working in cahoots with the Bondurants.  

LAWLESS grasps for and almost reaches masterful status as a backwater outlaw tale.  It’s gorgeously shot, impeccably acted, has a hit-you-in-the-gut viciousness and immediacy (the film’s high gore quotient is not for the faint of heart) and contains endlessly evocative ambience.  The film, though, is certainly the lesser of Hillcoat’s last two efforts, but the director owns and dominates LAWLESS' material through and through as so few would as he effortlessly transports viewers to its desolate and unwelcoming world where right and wrong to both the crooks and the coppers are vague abstractions.  LAWLESS lingered with me days after I saw it as a very good film about very bad people.

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