John Hillcoat plays a canny game in bringing Lawless to the screen. A Prohibition era tale of violence and corruption, it is set not in the urban jungle ruled by the likes of Al Capone but in the Virginia badlands where small-time operators could flourish under the noses of the police.
Hillcoat is a practised hand at period pictures. His portrait of late 19th century Australia, The Proposition, is top of the pile in that narrow genre. Lawless stakes a similar claim within its pantheon of films.
Based on the true story of the Bondurant brothers who ran a moonshine operation from Franklin County – source novel The Wettest County in the World was written by Matt Bondurant – Lawless casts everyone as a villain. Hillcoat’s trick is how he differentiates between the irredeemably depraved and those capable of redemption.
Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke are Jack, Forrest and Howard Bondurant, three bootleggers who ply their trade quietly and expect tradition – paying back-handers to the local cops – to continue.
Their way of life is shattered when sharp-dressed Special Deputy Charles Rakes (Guy Pearce playing fey and sadistic) arrives from the big city and initiates a crackdown. Thus begins a small war that rapidly escalates, turning neighbour against neighbour and ensuring the Bondurants a level of notoriety they never expected or wanted.
Lawless instantly joins the ranks of the great crime dramas. It presents the Bondurants as backwater psychopaths – as adept with a shotgun or a knife as they are with a moonshine still. Hillcoat and writer Nick Cave (his collaborator on The Proposition) even offer up a glamorous gangster in the shape of Dillinger-esque Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman in a handful of scenes) to show how violence became mythologised. The Bondurants never aspire to that level.
This is the world of the mud rat. Forrest and Howard never seem to bathe or change clothes. Only Jack, the runt of the litter and a wannabe player, has aspirations for more. It is his ambition that eventually leads to a catastrophic stand-off between the brothers and the law.
Interestingly whilst LaBeouf is first billed it is Hardy who dominates the action as a taciturn, grizzled mountain man. The root of his character is that Forrest is unkillable. Seeing the man believe the myth builds the motif – particularly in one brutal sequence that sets the tone of the film’s undercurrent of brutality. Legend collides with reality in a fountain of blood.
With its hints of The Godfather – three brothers, different temperaments, opposing viewpoints – Lawless is a mighty family fable. There are roles for women – Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska meet the menfolk full-on – but this is resolutely a story of tough men in challenging times.