PLOT: The Bondurant Brothers have been creating moonshine ever since prohibition fell upon the United States. Yet with violent crime on the rise in the midst of the great Depression, the local law enforcement finds that they have to crack down on bootleggers. Soon, a war between the brothers and a vendetta driven special deputy begins to brew in the “Wettest County in the World."
Director John Hillcoat returns to familiar territory with a striking and bold look at the world of outlaws in the effectively brutal LAWLESS. Adapted from the novel by Matt Bondurant “The Wettest County in the World,” this is a “based on real life” (or, fictionalized) account of the Bondurant Brothers, a bootlegging family threatened by a dangerous new deputy wanting to move in on their profits.
This fierce story is told mostly through the eyes of the younger sibling, Jack Bondurant, played with wide-eyed innocence by Shia LaBeouf. The older brothers include the quietly intense Forrest (Tom Hardy) and the firecracker Howard (Jason Clarke). The three brothers have managed to keep out of trouble by occasionally giving the local law enforcement a deal on their very own moonshine. However, with prohibition in full effect, the law begins to close in on the Bondurant family. Chicago Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) is especially keen on taking control of the buying and selling of the illegal substance, just so he can profit a little for himself. As if that wasn’t enough, Jack is trying to earn his name in the business by dealing with a deadly mobster by the name of Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman).
LAWLESS takes an unflinching look at this part of American history. Depression-era Franklin County, Virginia is beautifully recreated thanks to a keen sense of detail. Oftentimes in period pieces you can’t help but feel like you are watching a dull reenactment. Yet Hillcoat skillfully tells the Bondurant story with spurts of brutality and images of breathtaking magnificence. Shot on location just outside of Atlanta - around Peachtree City, Georgia – Hillcoat and his DP Benoît Delhomme paint this era in a picturesque manner using a natural color palate, one which makes the bloodshed all the more vivid when it occurs. This is a timeless story about a bygone era that manages to combine the western and the gangster drama in a rich and powerful story. It may not be all that original, yet it sure as hell breathes life into both sub-genres.
LaBeouf makes for a compelling hero here. He tells this story of his brothers and their “immortality” with a sense of wonder and pride. After all, Jack has seen his older brother on the verge of death many a time, and he still has yet to let any outside force strike him down. Hardy is terrific as well as he manages to find balance between his vicious intensity and softer moments between he and his lover - an ex-dancer from Chicago named Maggie Beauford (the exquisite Jessica Chastain). Guy Pearce returns to work with Hillcoat and Cave as a fiercely dangerous villain. The actor gives Rakes a menacing quality that is especially evil when he preys on Jack or his crippled friend (Dane DeHaan, recently seen in CHRONICLE). Oldman, Clarke and the entire cast are all terrific, as are both the ladies including Mia Wasikowska as a preacher’s daughter Jake falls for and Jessica Chastain as well.
From the opening sequence, one thing certainly stood out, and that is the fantastic score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. The music is as important here as the script, the actors and the director. The somber and compelling soundtrack is fueled by the vibrant sounds of “The Bootleggers.” The bluegrass played throughout features such guest vocalist as Willie Nelson, Wayne Bergeron, Emmylou Harris and Leila Moss. It elevates this moody piece with humor, color and a richness that brings LAWLESS to life. Nick Cave is a dark and poetic songwriter. His sometimes dreamy lyrics are often drenched in a wicked sense of humor. Much like his music, Cave has the ability to pass on this violence laden and atmospheric tone to his screenwriting credits, both for films directed by Aussie John Hillcoat (this and fantastic THE PROPOSITION).
As much as LAWLESS shines, it seems strange to categorize the feature as “Based on a True Story.” In the press notes it clearly states that the book on which the film is based is fictionalized. Albeit that is not really a problem with the film, it is more so an issue with the marketing. Other than the entire “is it or is it not true,” LAWLESS occasionally feels as if it offers too much of a good thing when it comes to talent. Clearly the opportunity to have the great Gary Oldman in your film is a plus for any filmmaker, yet his storyline seems incomplete and at times it feels unnecessary. Of course the actor is such a treat here that it is hard to fault his presence.
There is much to love in the latest collaboration of Cave and Hillcoat. It may at times attempt to be more epic than it is, yet that is a minor complaint. This gorgeously directed feature includes a number of terrific performances and a soundtrack that resonates long after the movie ends. At least the summer of 2012 is going out with a bang thanks to this vibrant slice of Americana.