During Prohibition, Franklin County, Virginia, was known as “the wettest county in the world,” an observation made by the journalist Sherwood Anderson. And in Franklin County were some of the most talented and ferocious bootleggers in the country, most notoriously including the Bondurant Boys, three brothers who produced a popular brand of white lightening. The story of this bootlegger gang—Howard (Jason Clarke), an alcoholic who returned from World War I a terrifying shell; Forrest (Tom Hardy), a contemplative, business-savvy bruiser, and Jack (Shia LeBeouf), a timid but enterprising wanna-be gangster, became folklore during their lifetimes. Believed to be invincible, the Bondurants’ brutally defied the corrupt law enforcers who wanted a piece of the action.
This rich material, known as the Great Franklin County Moonshine Conspiracy, is the basis for Lawless, adapted from the semi-biographical novel by Matt Bondurant, the gang’s grandson and grandnephew. Though it had the potential to be an Americana crime classic on a level with Bonnie and Clyde, Lawless is less than compelling, despite its built-in drama and immersive authenticity. (The script is by Nick Cave, who should stick to lyrics). Directed by John Hillcoat, the film exaggerates most of the characters into grotesquerie, especially Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a foppish special deputy from Chicago who tells Forrest, “You hicks are a sideshow.”
Rakes is made marginally more interesting by how it’s his vanity, rather than plain old villainous sadism, that gets him worked up into rages of violence; but by making him a caricature, the central conflict is diminished. This leads to a climax that is torturously inconsistent with the personalities involved—as well as being so disingenuously choreographed that it’s hard to tell what exactly is going on.
At the film’s opening, young Jack is getting impatient to be a player in the family’s moonshine operation, though Forrest already knows Jack isn’t tough enough to cut it. When the local law puts pressure on the family to play along with the Chicago protection racket, gruesome skirmishes, ranging from castration to tarring and feathering, escalate into a turf war.
Meanwhile Forrest is ministered to by Maggie (Jessica Chastain, who brings too much star power to the role), a former vaudeville dancer taking refuge in the hills of Virginia by working at the Bondurant’s speakeasy diner. If Forrest were intimidated by Maggie’s glamour, that could’ve created some sizzle; instead it seems as though he’s just too tuckered out to notice her inclinations toward him, leading to the flattest love scene in recent memory. Jack takes a liking to Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), daughter of a fearsome preacher, because she is beautiful and pure, and more importantly, respectable and therefore unobtainable. And we know from how Bertha looks at dandyish Jack that the devout drabs from her own neck of the woods don’t stand a chance. In one of the film’s interludes of greatness, Jack sneaks into her father’s meetinghouse during a worship ceremony, which Hillcoat films with a lyrical emphasis on its puritanical exoticism.
At other times, Hardy’s shuffling, mumbling, yet keenly intuitive take on Forrest, combined with the rustic dialogue, seems so much a piece with the squalid, 1930s setting and its tribal bootlegger alliances that it creates its own backwoods poetry. But these moments are fleeting, and the story’s momentum is halted by needless shifts in tone (from grimmest tragedy to comical caricaturing), which is bewildering considering how Hillcoat’s languorous yet relentless pacing gave The Road its desolate power.
The lack of narrative force comes from how Forrest, the story’s natural anti-hero, is repeatedly pushed to the sidelines to showcase Jack (or rather LeBeouf), who crosses paths with big-city gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) and does other stupid things just to strut his stuff. It’s as if Hillcoat didn’t quite have the guts to carry through with the story’s grim underpinning, opting instead for periodic feel-good upticks. Ironically, it’s a non-Bondurant, who is not from Franklin County, who steals every scene he’s in—and that’s Oldman’s gangster, who is too shrewd to be vindictive.