Opening Wide: LAWLESS and Bloody Bootleg Pleasures

Peter Martin, Managing Editor

After debuting at Cannes earlier this year, John Hillcoat's Prohibition Era drama Lawless, starring Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Shia LaBeouf, Mia Wasikowski, Guy Pearce, and Gary Oldman, opens wide today in the U.S. and Canada.

Our own Ryland Aldrich saw it at Cannes and filed a positive review. As he explains ...

Adapted by Nick Cave from Matt Bondurant's novel The Wettest County in the World, Lawless tells the story of famous bootleggers the Bondurant boys. Forrest (Hardy) rules the roost, running the operation out of a gas station restaurant, way out in the sticks. He is ruthless but fair, famous for having never backed down from a fight. Jack (LaBeouf) is the runt of the litter, but proves his worth to Forrest when he gets up the gumption to start dealing straight to Chicago gangster Floyd Banner (Oldman), greatly increasing the family's profits.
The law shows up in the form of Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Pearce), a delightfully devilish man with a mean streak that stretches clear across the county. Rakes takes it as a personal insult when Forrest rejects his offer of looking the other way for a piece of the profit, and makes it his primary objective to shut the boys down.

Ryland concludes:

The film may not bring anything new to the genre, but it certainly delivers a fun time at the movies. Time will tell if this is enough, but it isn't hard to imagine Lawless being in the awards discussion come next winter, especially given Hardy's talent (and Harvey's for that matter). Regardless, it's refreshing to find crowd pleasing butts-in-seat fun done so well.

(You can read his review in its entirety right here.)

My own views are similar, but not quite as positive. To provide a little more context, Matt Bondurant, who teaches writing and literature at The University of Texas at Dallas, wrote his novel based on the true story of his grandfather and granduncles, three brothers who ran a moonshining operation in Franklin County, Virginia, in the 1920s. Bondurant did a considerable amount of research, but one of the reasons that he told the story as a novel is that many of the details have been lost to the sweep of time.

As is apparently the case in the novel, the scripted action tends to play out in story arcs that are easily anticipated. For example, early on, Maggie (Jessica Chastain) shows up from the city looking for work, and immediately spies Forrest; we know he's a goner from that moment on. Likewise, Jack is smitten with Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), the daughter of a very prim and proper man, and their future course is pretty well laid-out. And when Howard Bondurant (Jason Clarke) reassures one of his brothers, 'Don't worry; I'll be there. Aren't I always?', we're pretty positive Howard won't be showing up when he's needed.

If the narrative beats are familiar, however, that doesn't dilute the strength of the characterizations as created by a very distinctive cast. Tom Hardy is the personification of "gruff love" when it comes to family members and the embodiment of "avenging angel" when it comes to protecting his turf. Guy Pearce, who at first seems to be defined by his haircut and clothes, brings a wild, unpredictable, crazy-eyed streak to his abhorrent behavior. Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska ably represent the limited opportunities available to women in the rural South of the time, bumping up against the boundaries placed upon them by men.


That being said, the casting of mostly actors from the UK and Australia for a traditional tale of the American South brings a thin layer of oddity to the proceedings. Also, Jack, the narrator, as played by Shia LaBeouf, is a callow and unlikable youth, which contributes to puncturing the film of the grandiloquent atmosphere that it apparently seeks to create.

It may be that LaBeouf's current limitations as an actor and the riot of slightly off-beat accents, as well as the outpouring of blood, are what keep Lawless firmly grounded as a genre picture, and prevent it from soaring into the atmosphere as some kind of "grand statement" on Life in These United States, as though the activities of criminals and corrupt lawmen in a rural community 80 years ago could serve as an incisive commentary on modern life.

Be that as it may, Lawless stands as a showcase for several excellent performances and a chilling portrait of a very violent time in a very specific place.


(Photo: Richard Foreman, Jr., SMPSP/ The Weinstein Company.)

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