San Francisco Chronicle
In the collective imagination, Prohibition happened in black-and-white and in big cities like New York and Chicago. There were passwords to get into speakeasies, and glamorous nightclubs where people drank booze out of tea cups. The violence was glamorous, too, and perpetuated by larger than life gangsters who wore spats, fired machine guns out of car windows and drove off before the cops arrived. Lawless has nothing to do with that side of Prohibition.
Instead it makes vivid and real a Prohibition of earth tones, full of stone-faced, mono-syllabic people with dirty collars. In Lawless, nothing feels safer than the open woods — until the moment people find they’re not alone, and then forget about the cops ever showing up. Forget about anybody showing up, when there’s not a soul anywhere within screaming distance.
Based on The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, which was in turn based on the real-life exploits of his bootlegging ancestors, Lawless was adapted by musician Nick Cave and directed by John Hillcoat. Cave and Hillcoat previously collaborated on The Proposition, a film that, with its rural setting, uncompromised violence and emphasis on family, has more than a passing resemblance to Lawless.
Three brothers in Franklin County, Va., go into business selling moonshine out of common glass jars — nothing fancy going on here. Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy) is strong and implacable. The youngest brother, Jack (Shia LaBeouf) is engaging and enterprising, someone who would be at home in the city. And middle brother Howard (Jason Clarke) is just sort of there, as an extra guy to have in a scene.
At the start of the movie, the Bondurant brothers aren’t the enemy, as far as local enforcement is concerned. They are the economy. And all goes well until one day a city slicker from Chicago shows up, charged with drying up the county. Special Agent Charlie Rakes is portrayed by Guy Pearce as a grotesque vision of an urban man, dandified, perfumed and carefully coiffed. It’s as if we’re seeing, not what this character is, but how the Bondurants might see him, as someone who might as well be a space alien.
Throughout that’s something very much felt in Lawless, the cultural distance between city and country that existed before communications and transportation made the world into one big town. About a third into the film, Jessica Chastain shows up as a city woman relocating to the country to find some peace (lotsa luck). Her clothes, her hair, her lipstick and her air of independence make her into a vision of desirability and color, amid the dullness, dust and dirt. It’s another strong performance from Chastain, who in the last 18 months has had the best rollout of an actress since Meryl Streep.
When the dandified Special Agent rolls into town, he gives the Bondurants a choice: Either they start kicking a portion of their profits to him, or he will have them destroyed. Hardy, as Forrest, is thoroughly convincing as one of those people who cannot be pushed around — giving in doesn’t even enter his head as a possibility — and so most of Lawless depicts a war, one no less bloody for its unraveling at a distinctly measured Southern pace.
But Hillcoat and Cave give us more than an action story. They create a world. In Jack’s courtship of a devout young woman (Mia Wasikowska), we’re back 80 years ago, even as we see in Jack’s vanity and in his desire for the trappings of the success, the emergence of the modern man. The filmmakers detail a long-gone conflict from a long-lost era and end up showing how the dreams and longings that motivate Americans never really change.