Lawless is the second collaboration between musician and scriptwriter Nick Cave and director John Hillcoat since their western of 2005 The Proposition. It is based on the 2008 novel ‘The Wettest County in the World’ by Matt Bondurant, telling the true story about the Bondurant brothers – moonshiners, living during the Prohibition era and trying to fight off authorities. It is a very simple, straightforward plot mostly focused on the three brothers: Forrest, Jack and Howard (portrayed by Tom Hardy, Shia LeBeouf and Jason Clarke respectively).
With cinematography by Benoit Delhomme (Breaking and Entering, The Boy with the Striped Pyjamas, One Day) the film alternates between shots of beautiful, but crime-infested, Franklin county and scenes of unspeakable violence. When Forrest is no longer able to lead the bootlegging clan (a result of a bloody scene followed by Forrest’s miraculous survival proving that he cannot be killed), Jack undertakes the responsibility of carrying out the wild business affairs. His enthusiasm is evident in a series of sequences where we see his business flourish. He is quickly pulled away from his dreams of becoming a bootlegging legend and back to reality by gangster Floyd Banner (a brief appearance by Gary Oldman) and the authorities in the face of Guy Pearce’s slick Charlie Rakes. Characters on both sides of the law seem to possess the drive not only to succeed no matter what, but also to perform striking acts of violence. However, instead of becoming interesting to the audience, this renders their reactions in particular situations rather predictable.
The same goes for the Bondurant brothers themselves. Although they differ from one another, their roles in the grand scheme of the illegal alcohol trade are quite obvious. Forrest, the head of the family, does not speak much and is supposedly immortal – a role which naturally fits Hardy and his growling voice. Despite the slight resemblance to Bane, his square shoulders and menacing demeanour definitely embody the potential for violence and aggression. In the meantime, Jack is the narrator of the story, but due to the constant intercutting between his and Forrest’s fate, the film never points directly to its protagonist. However, as a result of the attention given to Forrest and Jack, the oldest brother Howard fades to the background.
…a gritty Prohibition story of violence, gunshots and alcohol…
Unfortunately, the two female characters played by Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain are slightly overlooked. Chastain looks beautiful as usual as Chicago girl Maggie, who chooses to stand by Forrest’s side and run the saloon, used as a front for the brothers’ business. Meanwhile, the relationship between Jack and Wasikowska’s Bertha, a preacher’s daughter, develops well until the middle of the film where it is suddenly dropped only to be revisited in the end.
Lawless is not entirely certain whether it is a film about the figures of the Bondurant brothers or a gritty Prohibition story of violence, gunshots and alcohol. Except for the brothers, the rest of the characters are not given enough screen time to properly evolve like Bertha and Maggie or even Charlie Rakes, whose personality is hinted at, but still is insufficient. Although it is an alternative to films staged in the cities of the Prohibition era some viewers might be disappointed by its simple plot.