When the name Bondurant is mentioned in the smoky hills of rural Virginia, everything stops. People freeze dead in their tracks, critters scurry into the deep brush or beneath the baseboards, and the incessant drone of the tree-bound cicadas is replaced by deafening silence.
See, the Bondurant boys, Howard (Jason Clarke), Forrest (Tom Hardy), and Jack (Shia LaBeouf) are making a run for the American dream during prohibition-era Virginia by operating a flourishing moonshine business in Franklin County, Virginia. But illegal whiskey making, being the dangerous business that it is, goes hand in hand with corruption, brutality, misfortune and most of all fear. And the Bondurants know that controlling fear is most critical to protecting the family business.
Based on author Matt Bondurant’s mostly fictionalized account of his family as told in his book The Wettest County in the World, Lawless draws many fascinatingly poignant parallels between the depression era and ours today, especially in the Bondurant’s distrust of the government, the imbalance between rich and poor, and the helplessness of people just trying to do what’s necessary to survive while avoiding the oppression of greater, more powerful forces. But some of the biggest differences between now and then conversely provide the film’s best moments: namely the proliferation of the Tommy gun, the likelihood of getting beaten to a pulp with a pair of brass knuckles, and the propensity for settling disagreements with a good old-fashioned throat cutting. Lawless is bloody and violent making it well deserving of its R rating, yet at the same time it’s beautifully drawn and its messages are strikingly salient.
The film opens with a voice-over describing the legend that permeates the mountains of Franklin County, Virginia. The self-perpetuated tale is that the Bondurant brothers are invincible, un-killable. Each embraces that legend of immortality by living dangerously in a dangerous world. Howard survived the Great War, his place in life now viewed through the bottom of a booze-filled mason jar. Brother Forrest, now defined by a steely resolve and quiet ferociousness, fought a horrible battle against a bout of the Spanish flu that took the lives of both his parents. Their youngest brother Jack, highly impressionable and not quite as cock-sure as his confident siblings, expresses a fascination for Chicago-style gangsters and eventually forms his character in the likeness of that ambition.
As the depression tightens its grip on the country, this sleepy part of the world hardly takes the adversity lying down. Quite the contrary in fact, as the forested hillside lights up like a Christmas tree at night, the darkness pocked by the fires of moonshine stills. The biggest still of all is that of the Bondurants who hawk their homemade hooch out of the family gas station and general store.
Times are good and business is booming until the arrival of bow-tied, leather-gloved Special Federal Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) who brings his own big-city style of lethal corruption to the Appalachian Mountains. While the rest of the county’s “entrepreneurs” give in to Rakes’ ruthless crackdown by pitching a portion of their profits into his pocket, as expected, the Bondurants don’t take too kindly to outsider intimidation.
As the war on booze escalates and Rakes becomes Bondurant enemy No. 1, the family begins to experience a dynamic shift as Jack’s ambitions, coupled with his nose for business, begin to bear fruit when one of his biggest customers becomes Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), the big city gangster who he idolizes. And the caustic mood is softened a bit when two beautiful women enter the picture in the form of Maggie (Jessica Chastain) who takes a shining to Forrest, and Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) who slowly succumbs to Jack’s advances despite her devoutly religious upbringing.
Lawless runs with a mesmerizingly bleak undertone deep beneath its rough-and-tough Bonnie and Clyde exterior. We cringe at the violent brand of frontier justice that often sprays the blighted surroundings with bright crimson, while at the same time finding the mood perfectly offset by a much-welcomed sense of hearty backwoods humor delivered by a frog-throated Forrest or young, impressionable Jack Bondurant. Nick Cave’s script, and the star-studded cast under the direction of John Hillcoat (The Proposition, The Road) makes for a near-perfect gangland masterpiece from a bygone era that shows how little the dreams, aspirations and struggles of typical Americans have changed despite the 80-odd years that have passed since.
MPAA Rating: R for strong bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity.
Runtime: 115 mins.
Director: John Hillcoat
Writer: Nick Cave
Cast: Shia LaBeouf Tom Hardy; Jason Clarke; Guy Pearce; Mia Wasikowska; Jessica Chastain; Gary Oldman
Genre: Drama | Crime
Tagline: When the law became corrupt, outlaws became heroes.
Memorable Movie Quote: "I'm a Bondurant. We don't lay down for nobody."
Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Official Site: lawless-film.com
Release Date: August 29, 2012
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date: November 27, 2012
Synopsis: The true story of the freewheelin' Bondurants brothers, bootlegging siblings taking the law into their own hands. This is the story of the rural hard-men that created the big city gangsters. Brazen and fearless, these young rebel brothers helped build the American Dream in this exuberant tale of what was to become crime's first major gold rush. The youngest brother, Jack, fancies himself the next Al Capone; he dreams of sharp suits, guns, girls and fast cars, no matter the cost. Ambitious and impulsive, he takes the family's small-scale moonshining operation to the big leagues, to impress the gorgeous but off-limits Amish girl, Bertha. The middle brother, Howard, is the brawling muscle - loyal but reckless - never one to turn down a taste of white lightning. And eldest brother, Forrest, reluctantly accepts the changing times with grace and grit, leading the family with strength of character and silent determination against the beginnings of corporate greed. An enigmatic and stunning Maggie comes to town with a hidden past, igniting his passion and almost saving him in the process. As the Bondurants' legend grows, so too does the danger, and it's not long before the brothers must face the consequences of their transgressions, or rewrite the myth and the law themselves..
English SDH, French, Spanish (less)
English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German SDH (less)
Available on Blu-ray - November 27, 2012
Screen Formats: 2.40:1
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish
Audio: English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Discs: 50GB Blu-ray Disc; Three-disc set (1 BD, 2 DVDs); Digital copy (on disc); DVD copy
Region Encoding: A, C
The uncanny realism of Lawless includes the remarkable 1080p transfer from Anchor Bay. Vivid details and fall colors are abundant in this gritty film and all pop with bursting energy on this disc. Black levels are solid and shadows hold their shape as the film strives for a natural look that gives this film a great lift. The crispness of the fine details are as intoxicating as some of the locales the shoot entails. Colors remain landlocked in tans and grays and offer little change from the rustic environments that populate the film. Skin textures appear accurate. Overall, this is a fine looking transfer that should play well on your system of choice. While it doesn’t deliver a powerful-sounding amount of gunplay, the dialogue and soundtrack is handled well in this DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless track.
- Director John Hillcoat and Author Matt Bondurant provide the commentary that covers the historical period, the fictional characters and their arcs, the look of the film, the cinematography, and – well – essentially everything of interest concerning the making of their film. It’s well worth a listen for fans of good filmmaking.
Okay, so the six deleted scenes don’t add much to the existing film, but the Willie Nelson video for “Midnight Run” is a nice touch. There are two solid ‘making of’ featurettes that explore the behind-the-scenes happenings. The first features the cast and crew discussing the period and the characters in the film. The second features the author of the novel discussing the writing and research that went into his creation. Both are good and should whet the appetite for more Lawless shenanigans. Rounding out the collection is a look at the changes in the location from the era in the movie to the modern day one. Interesting and a tad too short.
- Six Deleted Scenes (8 min)
- Lawless: The True Story of the Wettest County in the World (22 min)
- Franklin County, Virginia: Then & Now (6 min)
- The Story of the Bondurant Family (13 min)
- Willie Nelson Music Video (2 min)