Most American bootlegging gangster films centre on the bling and flash of Chicago, Atlantic City and LA with excessive cops and robbers tommy gunning each other in sharp suits. It seems that the genre has never quite recovered from The Untouchables (1987). Lawless, takes a different slant, focusing on the hooch brewing bootleggers; painting them as salt of the hearth, blue collar Robin Hoods in their clashes with (corrupt, ‘natch) authority and big city types with their big city ways.
Six years back musician Nick Cave and director John Hillcoat made the striking, violent Aussie western, The Proposition, they now reteam to give us Lawless (with equally ponderous and violent, but less impressive results). This gory Prohibition-era story is set in the moonshining hills of Hicksville (Virginia), actually Franklin County (Virginia) and celebrates the intransigently independent, anti-social, good old boys, the (real-life) Bondurant family, the county’s leading redneck moonshiners. The Bondurant boys are played by Tom Hardy, all grammatically incorrect mumbles and knuckle dusters, rough, tough and patriarchal in a cardigan, (“I’m a Bondurant. We don’t lay down for nobody”), Shia LaBeouf plays the younger brother, out to prove himself to his brethren, but mostly coming across as if he’s constantly expecting Tom Hardy to turn into a big red truck, and Jason Clarke as the drunken one in the middle. Lawless also stars Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) and Jessica Chastain (The Help), who are both impressive, but this film is very much for the boys, by the boys.
Lawless is based (loosely) on The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant but focusses on the depression era power struggle that erupts when the Bondurant brothers stubbornly refuse to play ball with the “city authorities”. Epitomized (in an all that is bad with oppressive establishment types from outside of the countryside) corrupt and sadistic law man, Special Deputy Charles Rakes played by Guy Pearce in full on sadist, reptilian, weirdo mode, with a centre parting you could land a sparrow on, coming across as Lee Marvin playing Kenneth Williams.
Lawless is bloody and gory, but always aims to be lyrical, highbrow and cerebral. According to musician /screenwriter Nick Cave, “a lot of the truly brutal stuff did not make it through into the film. In the book, you get lulled by the beautiful lyricism of the writing, then suddenly you are slapped in the face by a graphic description of a killing. I tried to be true to that as much as I could.”
Crooked Rakes is after a share of the brothers’ profits and eventually LaBeouf’s Jack must prove his gangster worth against the “bad” side of organised crime. It’s this “hero’s” good, everyone else “bad” polarization, that is the film’s biggest problem. Lawless never addresses the fact that the Bondurant’s are criminals rather than the charming homebrew, Ambridge-ites the film would like them to be.
Other than that it’s just a funny looking (and sounding) gangster flick, full of the usual clichés and foibles.