John Hillcoat’s Lawless couldn’t be opening at a better time in the Czech Republic; this prohibition-era drama about moonshiners clashing with the law in 1931 Virginia hits local screens just after the country introduced a ban on sales of all liquor over 20% ABV following the deaths of 20+ from methanol poisoning.
In 1931, Franklin County, Virginia was “the wettest county in the world”: in the midst of prohibition, most of the county’s residents seemed to be involved in distilling their own moonshine and bootlegging it across the country. Incidentally, The Wettest County in the World was the name of the source novel by Matt Bondurant and the film’s original title – which is infinitely superior to the unimaginative title that the film currently bears.
Bondurant based the novel on the purportedly true exploits of his grandfather and great uncles, who used their bar as front for an illegal bootlegging business. In the film, Jack (Shia LaBeouf), Franklin (Tom Hardy), and Howard Bondurant (Jason Clarke) distill moonshine with the help of Jack’s friend Cricket Pete (Dane DeHaan) and distribute it through their bar.
Trouble comes in the form of both the law and the organized crime, who are working together to strong-arm local moonshiners into consolidating their efforts, and taking a slice of the pie in the process. While most of the other bootleggers cave, the Bondurant brothers refuse to give in despite numerous attempts at intimidation and an alarming escalation of violence.
Chief among the intimidators is Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a lawman from Chicago who has little respect for the locals he’s dealing with – on both sides of the law. Pearce, barely recognizable, gives the most striking performance in the film; effeminate yet intimidating (something akin to Helmut Berger’s character in The Damned), he makes for an effectively chilling villain.
Romantic interests for the brothers come in the form of Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska), daughter of a local preacher, and Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain), who Franklin hires to work in the bar and develops a relationship with. Gary Oldman features in a small role as gangster “Mad Dog” Floyd Banner.
While LaBeouf’s Jack narrates and is generally the central character in the film, his arc is predictable and he’s one of the weaker presences in the movie. Hardy’s Franklin dominates the screen whenever he’s around – half of his dialogue seems to be composed of guttural grunts and groans – and his relationship with Chastain’s Maggie is the real heart of the film.
Lawless was written by musician Nick Cave, who collaborated with Hillcoat on his previous features The Proposition and The Road. Plotting is not one of the film’s strong suits; the film leisurely builds upon itself without much feel for the overall sense of tension that should be apparent in this story.
Individual scenes are striking, however; Lawless features one of the most memorable throat-slitting sequences in memory, as a character clutches the skin on his neck together in an attempt to stop the bleeding.
Gorgeous cinematography by Benoît Delhomme perfectly captures the time and place (filming was done in rural Georgia locales); production design and costumes are similarly first-rate.
As you might expect in a film written by Cave, the soundtrack here is terrific; original songs by The Bootleggers feature support by Cave, Emmylou Harris, Warren Ellis, Ralph Stanley, and others. Stanley’s rendition of White Light White Heat is a real standout.
Lawless is an imperfect film, flawed at a script level, but almost every other aspect of the film – both behind and in front of the camera – is so accomplished that you really want to overlook the flaws. Rewatch value should be particularly high; this is the kind of authentic period drama that you just don’t see enough of anymore.