Lawless is the latest directorial effort from director John Hillcoat, based on the larger-than-life, true story of the Bondurant Boys and it’s as interesting one at that. See, no matter what anyone tells you, there are no real heroes of Lawless. On one hand, you have the outlaw brothers who are struggling to make their own way of life by selling moonshine in 1930’s Virginia. On the other hand, you have the corrupt officials who are trying to get their own cut of the Bondurant business. There are no real winners in this tale yet, Hollywood dictates, the audience needs someone to cheer for.
Unfortunately for the audience, the answer to Hollywood’s prayers comes in the form of Jack (Shia LaBeouf). Jack is the youngest and supposedly the most innocent of the three brothers. Lawless follows his ascension to power and corruption as he struggles against the exponentially more ruthless lawman, Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce). For narrative sake, Lawless follows what I like to call the “Scarface Principle.” Sadly for Lawless, neither of these make for the most compelling leads. LaBeouf may have once been able to play the part of the innocent, but not any longer. He’s simply not believable in his naiveté. Pearce on the other hand is faced with a different problem entirely. When a film is populated with various ethically questionable characters, it’s hard to cement a definitive “bad guy.” Lawless goes to extremes to convince viewers that Rakes is the lowest of the low. In this quest, Pearce becomes a parody of villainy, seeming more and more like a misplaced Bond villain in Prohibition-era Virginia.
Thankfully, Lawless receives a great deal of help from its supporting cast. Jessica Chastain is enchanting as the emotionally complex and mysterious Maggie. Seemingly an aesthetic addition to the plot, Maggie brings the film full circle. She literally spells it out in one of her final moments when she looks at Forrest and says, “Ain’t it just like you, to believe your own damn legend?” Rather than being obnoxiously evident about her role as the voice of reason in Lawless, she is perfectly content in her quietly intense presence and her sparse, but meaningful lines. This, of course, has a great deal to do with her primary on-screen partner, Tom Hardy in the role of Forrest. As the leader of this operation, Forrest leads through intimidation and action rather than grand proclamations. When he does speak, his words are few, but direct. These and other supporting performances carry the movie when its leads falter.
However, Lawless is more than its various performances. Screenwriter Nick Cave proved his penchant for violence with the epic western, The Proposition where he paired sparse settings with unparalleled bloodshed. With Lawless, he’s at it again. The choice of shooting locations for Lawless is almost as important as the casting. With this film, Cave and Hillcoat have found an unspoiled rural paradise. The muted earth tones of small-town Virginia and the lush colors of the outskirts of Franklin County are intoxicating in their beauty. This makes the bloody nature of Lawless even more arresting. The two feel at odds with one another, making the tension between city and country, outlaws and lawmen, and all other dualities heightened. Lawless already makes good use of its shocking violence, but against the backdrop of 1931 Franklin County, Virginia it’s almost unbearably gruesome. Some folks may be taken out of Lawless by its ruthless violence, but Nick Cave imbues the violence in this film with a sense of purpose. At no point does the film desensitize its audience to the violence. Even up until its final moments, every shot fired impacts the viewer on some level. Furthermore, the film never exploits the violence. Lawless pushes boundaries with its bloodshed, but never oversteps them. One notable example is the depiction of violence against women throughout the film. Lawless handles this troubling issue by rarely showing it onscreen, but highlighting its devastating aftereffects on the characters’ psyches.
Nevertheless, Lawless is, at its best, a story. It tells the story of the Bondurant Boys who defied the corrupt officials in Franklin County, Virgina. Lawless gives them purpose and conviction, which never seems to falter throughout the movie. While Lawless glamorizes and obviously fictionalizes some of the elements of their lives, as is done with Hollywood “true stories,” Lawless is never anything but enjoyable. Despite its all too convenient epilogue, the film is a gripping story filled with passion and violence, the likes of which are all too familiar in Hollywood, but Lawless is somehow different. Perhaps it’s the choice of characters or its setting, but Lawless feels fresh. It is a welcome return to Nick Cave’s authorial voice. While Lawless is by no means a perfect film, it is a welcome exercise in the tale of the anti-hero.