John Hillcoat is one of cinema’s most underappreciated directors and his movies are maddeningly underseen. His last film from 2009, The Road, was one of the best of that year, but was largely ignored by most everyone, including the supposed film experts who snubbed it of all Oscar nominations. That was a film that dared to face death and despair head on. It wasn’t a pleasant movie, but it was thematically deep and emotionally complex. It was everything movies should be, but it’s grim nature assured it would never overcome that bittersweet underrated status. Hillcoat’s latest, Lawless, based on the book “The Wettest County in the World” by Matt Bondurant, is once again brimming with greatness. It demands to be seen by a wide audience, but if history really does repeat itself, it’s destined for a quiet greatness, one that is known by those who have seen it and ignored by those who haven’t. Lawless has flaws, more so than The Road, and it’s not as contemplative, but it’s nevertheless one of the best of the year.
The film takes place in Franklin, Virginia in 1931 and stars Shia LaBeouf as Jack Bondurant, the younger brother to Forrest and Howard, played by Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke, respectively. It’s the Prohibition era and alcohol has been illegalized. As anyone who has ever cracked open a history book knows, this led to lots of unlawful practices surrounding the distribution (and ingestion) of alcohol. The Bondurant brothers are just one group of many who decided to profit off of the law, but it has become a problem in their little town and a hot shot deputy from Chicago, Charlie Rakes, played by Guy Pearce, is brought in to fix it. In the midst of all this, Jack begins to fall in love with a pretty young girl named Bertha, played by Mia Wasikowska. She comes from a more traditional, conservative family and is expected to act and dress a certain way, but she begins to reciprocate Jack’s feeling, which leads her astray and puts her in danger. By the end, tragedies will befall the characters and blood will be spilled.
This story, based on a true one about the author’s own family, is as gripping as any to come out this year. Movies about Prohibition are no rarity, the most popular being 1987’s horribly overrated Brian De Palma film, The Untouchables, but whereas that movie featured a wooden central performance from Kevin Costner and inconsequential shootouts with unnamed baddies, Lawless is rich in characterization and every event matters, causing a ripple effect to its amazing and inevitable conclusion. The brotherly bond is there and the romances are never played as hokey. These feel like real people living through a tough time in history, when the simple sale of alcohol threatened violence. The three brothers are far from upstanding citizens, but there’s a humanity to them and you understand their actions, even when you disagree with them. You may not approve of what they’re doing at a certain point in time, but you’ll never condemn them. Everything they do has a reason and the way they’re portrayed in the film—as flawed, but ultimately good people—is excellent.
These characters are three dimensional, there’s no doubt about that, and the dialogue they recite leads to some of the best and most intense dialogue driven scenes since Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, but Lawless isn’t all talk. In fact, it’s quite violent, brutally and uncomfortably so at times, but that makes the movie all the better. It doesn’t glorify it in any way and it exists for a purpose, to both give the characters some motivational weight and to give the film a gritty, raw and realistic feel. Lawless never feels exploitative in these scenes and knows when to leave things up to the imagination, like an early rape that is only implied, effectively eliminating that feeling of hopelessness many rape scenes elicit while still providing the anger and understanding such a scene hopes to instill in its audience.
If there’s anything wrong with Lawless, it comes from a lack of screen time for two of cinema’s most underrated actors, Guy Pearce and the as yet unmentioned Gary Oldman. Oldman features prominently in the beginning of the film and his utter disregard for the sanctity of human life makes him a captivating villain, but he’s quickly forgotten in favor of other narrative exploits, serving only as a catalyst for Jack’s eventual bootlegging ways. Pearce on the other hand is there from beginning to end, but his performance is so breathtaking and wholeheartedly deserving of an Oscar nomination that you just want him to be there more. All of the performances are great, in fact, but it’s the writing that allows them to be. Everything comes together beautifully in Lawless. It’s the perfect way to end the summer movie season.
Lawless receives 4.5/5