Theatrical release: 08/29/2012 DVD Date: 11/27/2012
Rating: R Running Time: 115 minutes
Note(s): Adapted screenplay by Nick Cave and based on the historical novel The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant.
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Review: Lawless is based on stories told by Jack Bondurant the character played by Shia Labeouf to his grandson Matt, who then spun them into the 2008 novel The Wettest County in the World. And the film captures that style rather well: a bit of fact mixed in with a lot of fiction. Scenes are exaggerated for effect, storylines embellished to add color, the good guys just a little too good, the bad guys just a lot too bad. This movie is definitely style over substance, with quite a bit of the former and surprisingly little of the latter.
During the years of Prohibition, the Bondurant brothers Forrest, Howard, and Jack run one of many moonshine operations in Franklin County, Virginia. (Hence the title of the book from the film is adapted.) Forrest acts as the patriarch of the family but is also its brawn. Howard is a bit of a loose cannon, rarely sober enough to contribute much of anything at any time. (His part is rather small here.) Jack is the youngest, more than a little naοve, with dreams of expanding the business out of the county to which, at the beginning, is exclusive to the county. The true genius of the operation, however, is Cricket Pate, a contemporary of Jack, who designs the stills from which the high quality alcohol is produced. The brothers have an easy relationship with the county authorities, keeping them happy with bribes and an endless supply of moonshine. That all changes when outsider Special Deputy Charley Rakes shows up and demands a large cut of their profits. The Bondurants refuse, as do every other moonshiner in the county, but Rakes begins to demonstrate how ruthless he can be to those who defy him. Meanwhile, Jack takes the initiative to sell some of their product to a distributor in Chicago, an arrangement that allows the brothers to expand their operation greatly all while Rakes tries to take them down.
Lawless moves along at a steady pace, not too fast and not too slow. It gives the viewer a chance to appreciate how well it is filmed, setting an atmospheric stage with terrific camera-work and lighting. The performances are generally good, with special note to Tom Hardy as Forrest, who can convey so much about what he's thinking and/or feeling just using his eyes.
The problem I had with the film centers mostly on the story and some of the elements therein. For example, it seems that despite the vast size of the county, there is only one road in and out of it, requiring vehicles to cross over a single lane wooden bridge. This appears to be more like an artificial plot convenience than anything else and the scenes filmed at the bridge lack authenticity as a consequence. The Chicago connection is never really explained either. Franklin County is long, long way from Chicago but I suspect that the city is referenced here because of its highly recognized mob connections during Prohibition, not because it made business sense. Another plot convenience. And then there's the comic book-like indestructibility of the characters. Forrest, for example, has his throat slit open and yet still manages to walk several miles to a hospital during a snow storm, no less for treatment. He's later shot multiple times in the chest and yet emerges as if he suffered nothing worse than a paper cut. Most of the other characters also seem virtually immortal as well. At the end, when Rakes is trapped on that very same bridge out of the county, he's shot repeatedly by Jack who himself, had already been shot in the gut and then knifed in the back by Howard. And he still manages to stagger out into the sunshine. I realize this is all part of the myth of the Bondurant family, but it comes across as more silly than dramatic.
(A quick note on the violence in the film, of which there is considerable: most of the explicit violence takes up only a tiny fraction of screen time, or is just off-camera, left to the imagination of the viewer. It's a good way of handling it, especially with some of the more gruesome acts.)
So, overall, points on the positive side for the look of the film, a toss-up on the acting, and points on the negative side for a story that lacks much credibility.