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Remarkably based on a true story, Lawless may seem a straightforward tale of those who make their living on the edges of society, but reveals itself to be an effective study of the family dynamic under extraordinary circumstances. This is a theme director John Hillcoat has previously explored in films like The Road (2009) and The Proposition (2005), and here he reteams him with the latter’s screenwriter Nick Cave, who has adapted Matt Bondurant’s novel The Wettest County in the World.
Just as The Proposition played with traditional Western conventions by moving the story to Australia, so too Lawless breathes new life into well-worn Prohibition-era cinematic tropes. True, it is populated by familiar characters; the hooch peddlers – in this case, the infamous real-life Bondurant brothers; the (often corrupt) lawmen determined to keep their county dry; the beautiful women who are both a temptation and a salve; the men of God preaching the glory of abstinence. And, of course, there are the brawls, the barﬁghts, the gunﬁghts – and worse.
Yet to this classic set-up Lawless brings a surprising intimacy. The Bondurants are not drawn in broad strokes, not ciphers for a generation or representatives of a historical moment – indeed, one can fair imagine that they would think little of such association. These are men entirely unto themselves, both geographically and morally; men with an individual sense of pride and of honour, albeit under their own questionable terms; men painted so vividly that it’s impossible not to be drawn into their story.
As the youngest of this trio of brothers, Shia LaBeouf leaves his one-dimensional Transformers persona behind to embrace Jack’s vulnerability, his desperate desire to be taken seriously at odds with his inability to shoulder the brutal responsibility of being an equal Bondurant brother. As middle sibling Howard, Jason Clarke cuts a sympathetic figure; a man entirely defined by his relationship with his brothers, losing himself in the bottom of a bottle when there is no family business to keep him occupied.
But the film undoubtedly belongs to Tom Hardy as eldest brother Forrest; despite having little dialogue and showing even less emotion, Forrest is a domineering, legendary presence both in his family and the community at large. Yet, through sheer force of talent, Hardy carves a man out of the myth, and one who is – as shown in gruesome detail – as flesh and blood as all the rest, and whose tendency to believe his own hype is his greatest weakness. It’s his strongest performance to date.
Outside the family, Guy Pearce is unrecognisable as Charlie Rakes, a twisted, rage-fuelled lawman who, despite being more cinematic construct than genuine persona, manages to stay just on the right side of caricature. Jessica Chastain, too, is wonderful as ever, her character Maggie having a tough as nails exterior that barely hints at the hardships that lie beneath. Such a temperament befits any woman entering this man’s world; indeed, although Maggie and Mia Wasikowska’s preacher’s daughter are the only female characters given any real screen time, the film’s gender divide is depicted in measured tones that speak more to historical fact than any sexist agenda. And it’s to Maggie that the ﬁlm’s quiet, tragic moments belong, her relationship with Forrest giving the film an occasional, and welcome, delicacy.
And, for a film set during such an explosive time, Lawless is surprisingly contemplative. Although there is plenty of action, a lot of it bloody in the extreme, a great deal of time is given to the dynamics of the Bondurant family, and to the particular social politics of their day. There are also comparisons drawn between those politics and modern civil and economic unrest, most notably in the carefully constructed soundtrack from Cave and collaborator Warren Ellis. With Bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley covering punk classics by the likes of Velvet Underground – the use of ‘White Light White Heat’ referring in this instance to both the war on moonshine and the war on drugs – the parallels could not be clearer
Yet Lawless plays not as social or historical commentary, nor as a rip-roaring tale of lawmen and criminals ripping up the Virginian forests; rather it’s about real men, living real lives, at an astonishing time. And while much of it is constructed from legend – from the passed-down family histories on which it is based to the collective cinematic conscious which fuels modern ‘memories’ of this era – it nevertheless remains a visceral, gritty and unexpectedly endearing family portrait.