Directed by John Hillcoat
Screenplay by Nick Cave
Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Guy Pearce
How long is Lawless? 115 minutes.
What is Lawless rated? R for strong bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity.
A true tall tale of the American South intertwines with Nick Cave’s murderous fever dream, for better or worse.
About three years ago, I moved to western Virginia without a clue what to expect. Having grown up in the Midwest, the first few months waking up to the Blue Ridge Mountains were a revelation for me. The landscape is unlike any other; every sunset a Thomas Kinkade painting. I was bemused and charmed to find the town to which I moved didn’t survive the recession well, but that what remains is still pure, quaint Norman Rockwell. The people who inhabit these towns, close to the West Virginia border in the hills, are some of the kindest and gentlest southerners you’ll find. But something I didn’t expect, something it has taken me years to realize, is the full extent of how proud Virginians are. They’re filled with the intrinsic knowledge that this state’s history is America’s history, and they’ll tell you there is pride and joy in hailing from this place. (We humble Midwesterners, we honest, corn-fed creatures, are not often big on state pride – or Confederate flags.)
Lawless is a Virginia movie through and through – it’s about fighting for freedom and never saying die. Matt Bondurant wrote “The Wettest County in the World” about his grandfather and granduncles, bootleggers in Franklin County, Virginia during Prohibition. Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke), and Jack (Shia LaBeouf) Bondurant run moonshine out of the mountains and into Chicago, living in peaceful rebellion until the law pokes its pointy little head into the business. In what’s referred to as the Great Franklin County Moonshine Conspiracy, Commonwealth Attorney Mason Wardell got his shiny shoes dirty when he jumped into the fray, demanding money in return for protection. In Lawless, Wardell uses Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) as a blunt tool to bludgeon the Virginia bootleggers into submission – all except the Bondurants.
Jack, cowardly and soft-hearted, hasn’t quite the wherewithal to join his brothers in their brutal business, but like any good youngest son, he keeps trying. Howard, the eldest, is a war-torn, wild-eyed savage whose hostility, fueled by moonshine, trumps his infrequent speech. Forrest, the middle brother, soft-spoken and eloquent, punctuates his occasionally rambling discourse with ferocious violence. What begins as Rakes’ corrupt vendetta builds to a full-on war with casualties on both sides and as much blood spilled as ‘shine. Enter Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), a bona fide outlaw with a tommy gun and a zoot suit, straight out of Chicago. Banner and his cronies (including screenwriter Nick Cave) form a tentative business relationship with the Bondurants that follows the old adage “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Cricket Pate (Dane DeHaan, Chronicle), crippled by rickets as a child, is a mechanical genius, souping up jalopies and stills until the Bondurant operation is a true force to be reckoned with.
No action-drama would be complete without love interests. Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain) comes from Chicago, where she was a burlesque dancer, to work in the Bondurants’ general store and finds herself enamored with chilly, stalwart Forrest. The two share a covert romance that plays out mostly through cracked doors and tiny gestures. Maggie’s flashy Chicago clothes pop out in a town saturated by browns, so sepia it feels like an old-timey photograph. Maggie’s presence first stuns the Bondurants, then inspires a bit of dapper transformation. Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska), who accompanies her Mennonite preacher father to Franklin County and becomes Jack’s paramour, is cajoled out of her drab homemade shifts and into a gorgeous lemon silk dress. Camel-hair coats, hand-painted ties, pinstriped suits, and gorgeous roadsters make their way into the Virginia hills over the course of the film, little jolts of color in a tepid landscape.
What began as a war over money and booze ends in a hail of gunfire, leaving us with an epilogue that shows us no one is immortal, no one is invincible, and eventually, clearer heads prevail. Violence begets violence and killers get their due. Don’t mess with the South. It’s Virginia pride, through and through.
Lawless was written by Nick Cave, whose obsession with this era, with frontier justice and brutal heroes, has been evident for decades in his music and his writing (he and director Hillcoat also worked together on “Australian western” The Proposition). Cave’s flair with words is best showcased in songs of murder and dark circuses, but it works here – the script is sparse, intelligent, punctuated with ruthless carnage. Unfortunately, it feels too spare – Cave’s dream of the American outlaw and the Bondurant family’s true (tall) tale make slightly uncomfortable bedmates. A number of disquieting scenes never get the follow-through they deserve (a Mennonite worship whose intensity and peculiarity drives Jack away, a nude Chastain sliding into bed with Hardy, a weeping prostitute poised on a newspaper in Rakes’s room).
Hillcoat, like Cave a native Australian, coaxes top-notch performances from his actors. LaBeouf, whose unexpected nudity in a Sigur Rós video earlier this year confirmed his desire for indie stardom, looks perpetually concerned, his furrowed brows squirming underneath his slicked-back hair. He and Wasikowska have a sweet, flirtatious chemistry, although apparently the Method actor genuinely frightened petite, pretty Wasikowska during filming. Hardy, ever the chameleon, uses a nearly undecipherable accent straight from the hills, his veritable bulk not ostentatious as in The Dark Knight Rises but disguised under sweater vests and brown jackets. Though Chastain plays Maggie with a stony strength, her chiseled cheekbones and lovely curves get more screen time. A nearly unrecognizable Guy Pearce plays Rakes as a germophobic psychopath, as persnickety as he is brutal, affecting a “city” accent as he calls the bootleggers a bunch of pathetic hicks. Oldman has very little screen time, but gets to swing a shovel at Cave (in a cameo role) and showcase his tantrum skills.
The movie is extremely good looking. From the opening credits, framed in a colorful autumn canopy, to the final shot, a restored photograph of the Bondurant brothers, the movie is visually engaging, the lighting and cinematography spot-on. Cave and fellow Bad Seeds member Warren Ellis recorded a brilliant soundtrack featuring The Bootleggers, which includes Ralph Stanley and Emmylou Harris. Covers of The Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat” and Grandaddy’s “So You’ll Aim Toward the Sky” are slightly out of place, but the end result is jarring and beautiful.
The question is, why did this movie drop with no fanfare in the middle of the last week of summer? With a cast like this one, with a plot that’s particularly stylish right now (see: Boardwalk Empire), why now? One supposes the studio is hoping to sneak between the fall’s Oscar bait and the summer’s blockbusters, but it seems an odd move.
Ten miles out of the college town in which I live, Mennonite buggies pass on highways criss-crossing vast fields and deep valleys. Moonshine is a not-so-secret commodity here, and Discovery has even filmed “Moonshiners” not far away. This area of the country is strange, proud, sometimes sinister, often lovely – and Lawless is all of those things too. By no means perfect, it’s captivating nonetheless.