Movie Review: Lawless
By Matthew Huntley
September 5, 2012

Yes, I use my crotch area for taking photos. Why wouldn't I?

America’s Prohibition Era (1920-33) has been a reliable background for many Hollywood crime dramas, which makes sense, considering so many crimes were committed when the 18th amendment was in effect, which illegalized the manufacturing and distribution of alcohol. Most Prohibition crime stories center around the notorious gangsters Al Capone and John Dillinger, but we often forget the alcohol restriction laws, coupled with the Great Depression, drove just as many small timers into a racket they otherwise would not have found themselves. These were the people living in remote towns, far away from New York and Chicago, who entered into a life of crime not because they sought power or riches, but because it was another means of survival. John Hillcoat’s Lawless sets out to tell one of these stories.

Based on the real-life Bondurant brothers, the movie recounts the short time when the family’s youngest sibling, Jack (Shia LaBeouf), took over their quiet and mostly harmless bootlegging operation. He does so by setting up business with the big league gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), who, according to the movie, was not afraid to murder people in broad daylight and then wink at the people who witnessed it.

The eldest Bondurant brother, Forrest (Tom Hardy), rightly thinks Jack is in over his head to go around making such deals, but after a series of incidences threatens the family’s welfare, Jack refuses to sit by and watch their business be shut down or taken over by corrupt cops. He thinks he and his brothers can obtain greater wealth and become the sole manufacturers and distributors of alcohol in their mostly insignificant town in Franklin County, Virginia. Eventually, as the story usually goes with movies of this type, we see how Jack’s greed and underestimation of the crime world sets him and his family on a downward and violent path, where survival is not necessarily a guarantee.

When the film opens, it’s 1931 and Jack is the driver for Forrest’s bootlegging ring. Along with their wild and impulsive middle brother, Howard (Jason Clarke), they make and deliver various types of liquor to the townspeople, which supplements the farm and restaurant business their parents left behind. One day the boys are paid a visit from the local sheriff (Bill Camp), accompanied by a clean cut, fancy clothes-wearing deputy from Chicago named Rakes (Guy Pearce), who strolls into town on behalf of the district attorney and demands a greater cut of the Bondurants’ profits. Otherwise, the deputy threatens, he’ll be forced to uphold the law, however loose it already is.

With its anti-heroes and villains in place, Lawless proceeds, more or less, as a traditional crime saga. After Jack forges his deal with Banner, the business takes off, and we get a montage where the money starts rolling in and Jack, along with his partner Cricket (Dane DeHaan), take over the entire bootlegging syndicate. He starts to buy new cars, suits and develops a fearless attitude. We also get the standard scenes where the boys establish relationships with the two main female characters. Jack begins courting the innocent, church-going Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) and Forrest finally accepts the advances of Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a former dancer from Chicago. Both women emit a sense of calm and it’s no surprise the movie uses them to make the men more vulnerable.

This being a crime drama and all, we already know the brothers’ high life can’t last forever. Eventually, the war between the Bondurants and the local officials begins to boil and the obdurate Rakes starts taking the law into his own hands, as do the brothers, which leads to the inevitable, yet still effective, climax in front of the only bridge leading out of town. It’s here where a bloody and sensational shootout takes place, the likes of which we’ve seen before.

Lawless is not a particularly exciting movie to watch and I was surprised to learn it competed for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, an honor typically awarded to films that push the envelope in some way. This one sticks to its formula too rigidly and doesn’t bother to venture into new territory. Its primary handicap is at the screenplay level, which Nick Cave adapted from Matt Bondurant’s novel about his grandfather and great uncles’ temporary life of crime. As a historical drama, Cave’s script goes pretty much where we expect it to and contains few surprises.

Nevertheless, the film’s underlying drama is engaging and I admired the direction and performances. Hillcoat, who made the great The Road, patiently unfolds the events to allow for adequate buildup of tension and he garners strong acting from his cast. Even though the characters are all archetypes (despite them being based on real-life individuals), the actors embody them with conviction and lend them weight and personality. There’s also a great level of detail in Chris Kennedy’s production design to recreate the era. It’s simple and understated but it puts us right where need to be without calling undue attention to itself.
When it comes to history, Hollywood generally likes to focus on the big people and events, but there are probably more lesser-known, yet just interesting, stories waiting to be told. If these “small time” stories can gain enough traction with audiences, perhaps the studios and filmmakers will take greater risks in the way they tell them. Lawless doesn’t take many risks and it doesn’t qualify as essential viewing, but it has enough admirable qualities that make it worthy of a marginal recommendation.