I was expecting something like the neighborhood where we might find films like Public Enemy, or Miller’s Crossing, or even something a few blocks from a few of the biggest homes in the area – like where Bonnie & Clyde and The Untouchables reside. But I didn’t find that. What I got was a bit closer to the outskirts of the neighborhood, where you might find the Last Man Standing.
As Lawless opens, it is 1931, and we find we are in Franklin County, Virgina. We are in the period of Prohibition. The tale is of moonshiners struggling to keep their hold on Franklin County’s thriving liquor business. Folks may not have much going for them, in that place, at that time, but a taste of ‘white lightning’ made their lives easier.
The Bondurant family (Forrest, Howard, and Jack) pretty much had things their way in supplying the county with liquor made from corn, until competition, and some corrupt cops tried to get the Bondurants to share some of the swag. I almost called it wealth – but this is the Depression era, as well as the era of Prohibition, so these backwoods folks, living in the foothills to the Blue Ridge Mountains; so even the Bondurants, despite the successful illegal liquor business, weren’t living all that well.
The three Bondurants were fair, honest in their way, and protective of their ‘business’. If not quite respected, at least they were feared. As Forrest Bondurant, played by Tom Hardy might say – We control the fear, and without the fear, we’d be as good as dead.
Hardy is making quite a name for himself these days – and this film can only add to his allure. Soon he’s going to be the kind of actor that gets billing above the title. In Lawless, he’s laconic throughout the whole film. He’s like a John Wayne kind of guy – speak low, speak slow, and don’t say a whole lot.
An example of that would be when he has to discuss terms with a coalition of local bootleggers and moonshine still operators who want his cooperation. Forrest simply said, I’m a Bondurant. We don’t lay down for nobody.
Yes, the two elder Bondurants were a tough group. The middle brother Howard, played by Jason Clarke, didn’t have a whole lot to say either. But he was tough as nails, and fearless.
You might see a resemblance (above) between the Australian Clark and the long time character actor, John Vernon, who 40 years ago played the San Francisco Mayor to a rather famous San Francisco detective known as Dirty Harry.
The third Bondurant brother was Jack Bondurant. He was called the runt of the litter, and as the youngest, it seemed he was forever in the shadow of his older siblings. Shia LaBoeuf has the role. Jack is not only the youngest of the brothers, he is also the smallest. What he wants most is to prove himself as worthy to his older brothers. Jack also desires the daughter of a local preacher, Bertha Minnix, played by Mia Wasikowska.
Jack begins by looking like a young man, boyish, and sincere. But by the end of the film, he will have matured into a rough and tumble hombre, to say the least.
As you might imagine, there are women in the film. With speaking parts that matter. Mia Wasikowska resembles a youthful Mia Farrow. In Lawless, she is the preacher’s daughter, and the object of Jack’s affections. Above is a nice shot of her in closeup. There’s another woman who has an important role. The character is called Maggie Beauford. She’s down in Franklin County to get away from a tawdry past in Chicago. One day, she simply shows up at Blackwater Station, where the Bondurants live and own a combo gasoline filling station/saloon. Maggie is looking for work.
Jessica Chastain has the role of this woman who was beaten by the fast life in the city, but emerged unscathed. She believed that life in Franklin County would suit her better. As is turned out, life in this backwoods town wasn’t all that safe either.
Then there’s the bad guys. First is Guy Pearce who plays Special Deputy Charlie Rakes. He’s corrupt to his core, his clothing is miles above anyone else’s in the town, so he can’t escape being noticed. He’s in town and he is out to get his share of the Bondurant’s action. He is also a psycho killer who can carve you up, break your neck with his bare hands, or shoot you up so you resemble swiss cheese.
There’s one more character to know about going in, and that would be the gangster Floyd Banner. He too dress well, and he favors Tommy guns. Floyd enters the film as some one who will rub out a competitor with a Tommy gun in broad daylight right in town and not really care who saw it go down. Gary Oldman has the role and unfortunately, he hasn’t a whole lot of screen time.
That’s your set up. A small town in the hills of Virginia. The local lawmen are pretty content to look the other way about the illegal liquor trade. But when outsiders like Charlie Rakes and the attorney Mason Wardell, want to muscle in, the local sheriff and his deputies have to choose sides, and staying alive is also part of the equation. So they join up with Rakes and company.
Sheriff Hodges will eventually have to tell Forrest Bondurant that it was never personal.
So you can see where this situation will take us. Yeah, a shootout at the bridge. First to arrive is Jack Bondurant, and he’s alone. But not for long, as Forrest and Howard soon arrive to join the melee.
Yeah, there will be blood, and lots of it. Blood as in blood relations, like brothers, or like in blood being spilled – throats are cut, body parts are cut off, and plenty of folks are on the receiving end of bullets in flight.
You can knock down the Bondurants, even fill them with bullets, but they don’t stay down. They keep on coming.
Directed by John Hillcoat, and written by Nick Cave, the film has impact, fine action, and even marvelous performances by the actors. It also has high production values. The costumes, cars, sets, and even the music all seem like a lot of work went into the production. The film is based upon a book called The Wettest County in the World, authored by one Matt Bondurant about real events in the life of his family about 70 years back. Based upon true events or not, the film plays well and might just as well be fiction.
The main issue – I won’t call it a problem – is that nothing in the film seems fresh. This is not a brand new genre. Period crime films have been around for a long time, so that is likely why, as the film begins, we don’t have to get too far into it before we know how where it will go, and how it will end. It seems as though we have seen most, if not all of these characters and situations before.
1) family loyalty, 2) coming of age, 3) city slickers vs the country hicks, 4) corrupt cops, 5) an innocent woman, 6) a not so innocent woman, 7) fearlessness, 8) bravado, 9) a shootout, 10) an unsurprising ending. Yes, this film has it all.
On the other hand, they’ve done a very good job despite the familiarity of the subject. The film’s tagline reads – When the law became corrupt, the outlaws became heroes. I’ll score is at four point zero and recommend it. Check out the trailer .