The Weinstein Company
Director: John Hillcoat
Screenwriter: Nick Cave, inspired by Matt Bondurant’s novel “The Wettest County in the World”
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Guy Pearce, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Mia Wasikowsky, Dane DeHaan
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 8/16/12
Opens: August 29, 2012
Mayor Mike Bloomberg of New York, you have a wake-up call. If you succeed in prohibiting 32-ounce soda bottles in our great town, New York could suffer the fate of Franklin County, Virginia. That area, known by Matt Bondurant’s novel “The Wettest County in the World,” appears to have been the center of the Prohibition problem, an experiment in social engineering that competes in stupidity with the Vietnam War, the election of Nixon, slavery, segregation and the burning of witches. “Lawless,” and indeed the Prohibition Amendment and its accompanying Volstead Act which led to the expansion of the American Mafia, tell us that the law cannot conflict with the desires of a large percentage of our population, because we will find a way around. In that case our current drug policy which has resulted in similar gang warfare, a huge population of non-violent drug offenders in our jails, should be re-evaluated. It took thirteen years for our politicians to come around to repealing that dumb 18th amendment but it’s taking far longer for them to deal more rationally with narcotics.
John Hillcoat, the Australian-born director whose résumé includes “The Road” (about a man and his son trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world), is in his métier, since the hill country of Franklin County, Virginia into which he and cameraman Benoît Delhomme peer, looks like a place that had been hit by a bomb, the sole survivors duking it out in much the way the drug lords in Mexico assassinate those who dare to compete. If you discount the almost comic violence in such blockbusters as “The Bourne Legacy” or “The Dark Knight,” “Lawless” serves as the most convulsive film this year so far. With the action beginning in 1931, people are injured or killed by Tommy guns, rifles, revolvers, brass knuckles, a razor blade and a spade. There’s money to be made in the wettest country in America, where everyone is fired up not so much by moonshine but by the profits that the evil concoction brings. Moonshine, which we hear can be made not only from fruit but from the bark of a tree, is imbibed by the whole town, even though nationwide our drinking was cut by fifty percent.
A key theme of the movie is the growing of cojones by Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf), one of the infamous Bondurant Brothers (this is based on a true story), who is called the runt of the litter. We see why in the prologue set in 1920 when he refuses to shoot a hog, forcing his brother to end the life of a large, grunting animal that never harmed anyone. The brothers are to grow up to face other human beings on a more level ground, however, at great cost to themselves and others.
The Bondurant Brothers, led by the taciturn Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy—whose speech is only slightly more understandable than it was when he was Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises”), doesn’t take guff from anyone whether corrupt officers of the law or competing moonshine interests. Forrest grunts more than he speaks, as though some of the vocal chords of that dead hog replaced his own. Since the Bondurants run the most profitable moonshine business in Franklin, the Feds are determined to bring him down, sending Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) from Chicago to locate the source of the distillation and bring down the bandits. Rakes is corrupt like everyone else, including the local sheriff and wants part of the pie, but Forrest refuses to pay him a dime. As Cricket (Dane DeHaan) turns out the beverage and Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf) grows more angry each time he is beaten to a pulp, Rakes—who parts his painted hair in the middle and flattens it with grease—will stop at nothing, even murder, to get some of the dough.
For romantic interest, Jack carries out a courtship with Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) the local, bonnet-covered Mennonite woman while Forrest settles into an affair with Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a burlesque dancer who moved from the big city to find peace and quiet in Franklin. She doesn’t.
We take in the sporadic, sudden violence—a man’s throat is cut with a razor blade, a bootlegger is knocked in the head with a spade, a full-scale war breaks out near the distillery, though one wonders why nobody except gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman in a brief role) uses a Tommy gun. The action builds steadily toward the final fireworks, some local color is provided by a view of a Mennonite prayer meeting where the washing of legs is de rigueur while men with thick beards and women with bonnets harmonize. Scripter Nick Cave contributes a depression-like score of bluegrass and gospel together with Warren Ellis, antique Fords zoom about in one case using moonshine instead of petrol (Al Gore, are you listening?), and lead performerTom Hardy gets to show acting chops as he could barely do as Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises.” The movie does not quite equal the epic scope of “Bonnie and Clyde,” as if by now the lack of novelty may have diminished the pleasures we take in extreme violence.
Rated R. 110 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B+