Movie Review: Lawless
By Edwin Davies
August 28, 2012
When we think of Prohibition, we think of gangsters. Historically, we think of Al Capone and his ilk building empires on spilt blood and illicit liquor, whilst cinema gives us James Cagney rising to the top, then falling face down in the gutter. These are indelible, iconic images, and it's no surprise that whenever film-makers tell the story of Prohibition, they tell it through the eyes of gangsters; grandiose and tragic figures who strut around in sharp suits brandishing Tommy guns.
What you don't often see are the people who produced the moonshine upon which those empires were built. People who scraped out a hardscrabble existence while trying to stay one step ahead of the law. It is in this environment that John Hillcoat's Lawless is set, as it tells the true story of Forrest, Howard and Jack Bondurant (Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke and Shia LaBeouf), three brothers who made moonshine in Franklin County, Virginia for sale in Chicago. Their modest operation is threatened when they refuse to bow to pressure from Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a psychotic deputy who wants everyone in the county to pay protection money in exchange for being left alone. Reprisals and counter-reprisals follow, as the brothers and Rakes wreak bloody havoc upon each other.
As much as it is a drama about brutal yet charismatic criminals, Lawless is also a film about myths and legends, and the way in which they shape people’s lives. In his opening narration, Jack relates how Forrest believes the Bondurants are indestructible since he survived both World War I and contracted Spanish Flu, and that belief informs the way in which Forrest and his brothers act throughout the story. They believe that they cannot be killed, and Forrest's belief in his own legend plays as big a part in his decision to stand up to Rakes as any genuine principles he may have. Even his principles are tied up in his image of himself as part of a noble tradition of honorable criminals, and there's a sense that Forrest's laconic attitude when committing acts of horrific violence is as much a product of him behaving how he thinks a criminal should as it is a result of his actual personality. Hillcoat and screenwriter/composer Nick Cave also manage to subtly work in the idea that this self-aggrandisement exacerbates the situation, as evidenced by the almighty beating Rakes gives Jack to prove that the Bondurants aren't the "hard-boiled sons of bitches" that he had heard they were.
As well as the small-scale intimacy of these family myths - which seem to at some points be both debunked and at others embellished by the source material, an historical novel (The Wettest County in the World) written by a descendant of the brothers (Matt Bondurant) - the film also touches upon broader legends in the popular imagination. In an early scene, Jack watches as Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), a famous Chicago gangster, uses his Tommy Gun to lay waste to a rival's car before strolling away and winking at Jack as he passes. Jack runs into the street and picks up one of the spent shells, which he then gives to his friend Cricket (Dane DeHaan) to complement the news clippings the two collect of Banner's exploits.