Based on a true story, Lawless concerns the Bondurant brothers, a trio of Virginia bootleggers from the 1930s who went to war with Chicago mobsters over a turf dispute. As the film tells it, the Bondurants were known in their native Franklin County for a distinctively strong brand of moonshine, and Chicago’s organized criminals, thinking they could easily bully a bunch of gullible “hillbillies,” assumed it would be a low-risk venture to horn in on the profits from the mountain hooch. Many bootleggers folded, but the Bondurants, perceived by locals, and perhaps even themselves, to be indestructible, held firm until things turned bloody.
It’s obvious why that story would be catnip for contemporary directors, as it has the thrust of a classic gangster film with a dash of modernism (i.e., there’s no real good guy) to spice up the proceedings, and that’s the film that John Hillcoat and screenwriter/musician Nick Cave partially made. Hillcoat and Cave can barely bring themselves to address the fascinating specificities of producing and smuggling moonshine (Cave’s script is, in general, barely adequate), as they’re more interested in cultivating an air of imprisoned, claustrophobic melancholy that’s occasionally released by violence.
Lawless is a peculiar film—a hybrid of ludicrous art film and ludicrous B movie that, logically, doesn’t quite fulfill the needs of either. As an art film, which would mean that Lawless is pursuing something thematically or aesthetically more ambitious than providing genre jollies, it’s mostly a failure. The apparent theme, that the hooch war between the varying hoods in Virginia and Chicago in the 1930s parallels the contemporary white-collar frictions between massive global corporations and smaller local businesses, is largely ignored in favor of reveling in familiar gangster iconography and archetype. (It’s this theme, incidentally, that’s supposed to allow us to accept the Bondurants unconditionally as heroes, despite the scant moral difference established between them and the more polished gangsters.)
But Hillcoat skimps on the usual action kicks you might expect him to forgo thematic unity for as well, which throws you for a loop; instead he dawdles, probably in the hopes of elevating his clichés to myth. This charged, pregnant slowness, which would normally be irritating, distinguishes Lawless as an uneven but effective genre film. The irregular, sometimes uncertain pace inspires expectant uncertainty in us as well, and so the bloodshed, when it occurs, is quite jolting. Since the violence in the film is actually relatively sparse, you’re effectively put in a state of perpetual apprehension that mirrors the state of the continually hounded Bondurants, which also encourages you, despite your better judgment, to accept them as your surrogates.
It also doesn’t hurt that Lawless is populated with first-rate scenery chewers who know how to blow their mere sketches up into something distinct and volatile. The story’s primary duel is between Tom Hardy, as the chief Bondurant, and Guy Pearce, as a mob flunky in law enforcer’s clothing. Hardy goes way under the top for the role, adopting a growl that seems to be emitting from his scrotum, and Pearce complements it with some not unexpected effete wackiness. Both know they’re ridiculous, but they provide the broad charge and naked concession to the tenants of the genre that Hillcoat’s ambitious occasionally vague direction needs. Lawless isn’t a good movie, but it’s enjoyable and characterized by a certain schizophrenia in execution that would seem to encouragingly imply that Hillcoat is moving away from his early, more unified, but pretentious works of forced allegory. Lawless could eventually become retrospectively known as its director’s growing-pains movie.
The image is occasionally soft, particularly in respects to the pervading brownish hues, but that’s probably intentional considering that Lawless is clearly meant to resemble the faded 1930s photographs that inspired author Matt Bondurant to pen the source material to begin with. Otherwise the image is gorgeous. Whites and reds are sharp, the greens are positively lush, and various period details, such as the clothes and buildings, are vividly rendered. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is unambiguously top-notch. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s rich, haunting score is presented with considerable dimension and the shoot-outs, barroom scrapes, and surly confrontations are rendered with immersive precision.
The audio commentary by director John Hillcoat and Bondurant is an enjoyable collection of anecdotes that primarily concern the process of assembling various facts, myths, and half-spoken rumors into Bondurant’s historical novel The Wettest County in the World, as well as Hillcoat’s efforts to prune the book for the subsequent film adaptation. Bondurant, the grandson of one of the brothers depicted in the film, discusses historical research while Hillcoat concerns himself with details as broad as the texture of the actors’ performances and as minute as the actual weight of a Tommy gun. The other extras, save the interesting collection of Bondurant family photographs presented in "The Story of the Bondurant Family," are disappointingly puffy. A good documentary about the practices of Franklin County bootlegging, or American bootlegging in general, would have been welcome, but "The True Story of the Wettest County in the World" is really just a collection of actor promos with the occasional historical nugget included arbitrarily. "Franklin County, Va.: Then and Now," which presents a compelling hook of contrasting a society’s varying generations, is only six minutes long and therefore skin-deep. Deleted scenes, which are incidental nip/tucks of moments that appear in the film, are also included, as well as a Willie Nelson music video.
Lawless is a compellingly nutty and uneven gangster film.