Screening the history of bootlegging in urban America led to the invention of a genre — the gangster film — but moviegoers have seen little of the hills and hollers from whence the syndicates' potent spirits were shipped. Offhand, I can only think of Robert Mitchum's homegrown 1958 vehicle Thunder Road — and now, Lawless.
The scene is laid during the Indian summer of Prohibition, in Franklin County, Virginia, where the flames of stills dot the hillsides. Foremost among Franklin's moonshiners are the Bondurant brothers: Eldest Howard (Jason Clarke), a half-crazed survivor of the trenches of World War I; middle child Forrest (Tom Hardy), the functioning ringleader; and the callow youngest, Jack (Shia LaBeouf), who narrates with awed reverence for his big, bad brothers.
The Bondurants are running a no-fuss distilling business inside the county and work hand in glove with local law enforcement, but the status quo is upset as outsiders roll in. First, Maggie (Jessica Chastain), an ex-chorus girl from Chicago, looks for work at the filling station/general store/coffee counter that the Bondurants use as their base of operations. Also hailing from the Windy City, headline-news gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) stops in just long enough to empty a tommy gun into a pursuing automobile — and to win the idolatry of Jack, who has ambitions beyond his brothers' big-fish, small-pond setup, hoping to make himself over in Banner's pinstriped image. Finally, there's Federal Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a citified dandy shipped down from Chicago to bust stills and heads.
Lawless is based on the 2008 family history mythology The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, grandson of Jack. The source material was freely adapted into the screenplay by musician Nick Cave, who also laid down the film's music with Bad Seeds bandmate violinist/multi-intrumentalist Warren Ellis and a host of guests as the Bootleggers. Cave and Ellis had previously provided soundtracks for director John Hillcoat, a fellow native Australian, on 2005's outback western The Proposition (with Cave as screenwriter) and 2009's The Road.
I say "freely adapted" because, among other scrapped devices, Bondurant's novel included Winesburg, Ohio author Sherwood Anderson as a narrator. The material was presumably matched to the filmmakers because of its tattered-fringe-of-civilization setting, its wrathful violence (neuterings, tar-and-featherings, etc.), and because of its hard-swaggering men, a longtime Cave fetish — see the 1996 album Murder Ballads, with its updated "Stagger Lee," whose opening line might nearly prologue Lawless: "It was back in '32 when times were hard. . . ."
Rakes is the film's verifiable sociopath, finicky and brutal, all fluttering giggles and fussy, gloved hands, keeping his shoe-shine-frosted hair parted around a trench down the middle of his scalp. His proto-SS law enforcement recalls Michael Shannon's Prohibition Agent Van Alden on Boardwalk Empire, though Rakes is without Van Alden's self-justifying religious sense of mission — in fact, there's no explanation for this sniggering sadist any more than there is for the cataclysm in The Road.
As Rakes's amorally moral nemesis, the blunt, shy, and hulking Forrest, Hardy acts out of the back of his throat, producing a froggy growl of indistinguishable national origins — not to get hung up on this choice, but only Hardy's bull neck and shoulder span backs up the second-coming-of-Brando talk around him. In one of Hillcoat's wide-screen tableaux, Forrest's tempered stoicism is balanced against Jack's demonstrative grief — and LaBeouf actually holds up his end of the screen more compellingly. Not only producing a feasible accent, he profits from a role that exploits his soft, squinty face, appropriately backwoods, and the shifty quality — something insolent and insecure — that's been overlooked in the selling of him as a star.
Jack's hillbilly ambition, which has him courting in a camel's hair coat with the tag still on, is a prediction of rock n'roll peacocking in decades to come. The coat and other period details — courtesy of production designer Chris Kennedy, a collaborator of Hillcoat's since film school — create the texture of Lawless, a story set less in a living organism of an Appalachian community than on a symbolic battleground of rising mass-market commercialism, a struggle between the self-sufficient integrity of mom-and-pop localism (Forrest Bondurant) and encroaching entrepreneurial organizations — both private (Banner) and, lowest of low, Federal (Rakes) — with Jack's soul in the balance.
Hillcoat and Kennedy begin Lawless in the clay- and tobacco-brown tones that have denoted rural poverty since at least the days of The Potato Eaters, but even insular, clannish Franklin Co. can't keep out the latest city haberdashery: Banner's hand-painted ties, which impress Jack as much as his machine-gun chutzpah, or the store-bought rose-patterned yellow dress that Jack uses to woo Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), the daughter of a Mennonite preacher, out of her homespuns.
Hillcoat makes genre films in an elevated style (Terrence Malick is given "special thanks.") He distills his stories into lyrical effects and "painterly" mise-en-scène, but rather than using these means to reach for the ineffable, he refines quite primitive relationships to abstractions — sometimes resorting to clumsy symbolism, as in a cutaway to fighting cocks after two brothers have been going at it, a crude piece of Eisensteinian intellectual montage.
Hillcoat does achieve moments that etch into the mind — an attempted assassination which mingles feathery snow and steaming blood, for one — but the narrative often seems odds with the director's pictorialism, trudging when it should be striding towards the climax, isolating the performers on their marks when everything depends on taut blood-ties interconnection. The cumulative effect of the Depression mosaic is, then, less than the sum of its parts, but Lawless does give one clear lesson. Despite the acts of startling violence herein, the mortal sin is vanity — clothes unmake the man. Too often, though, they also upstage him.