Based on the 2008 novel “The Wettest County in the World,” “Lawless” is the true story of the Bondurant brothers’ rise to bootlegging infamy during the Prohibition Era.
The book was penned by Matt Bondurant, whose grandfather Jack (Shia LaBeouf) is the main focus of the film. Alongside his brothers Forrest and Howard and their friend Cricket, the gang became infamous for their moonshine bootlegging run in 1920s Virginia. “Lawless” focuses on the brothers and how they turned Franklin County into the self-proclaimed “wettest county in the world.”
As with any film based on true events, it’s hard to decipher fact from sensationalism. The Bondurant brothers in particular are shrouded in a cloud of their own legacy. As the film suggests, the Bondurants thought themselves to be invincible, even bordering on immortal. Forrest, played to a tee by Tom Hardy, is specifically the proverbial cat with nine lives. His older brother, Howard (Jason Clarke), is the over-indulgent lush of the three, and baby brother Jack rounds out the group with his naive youthfulness.
Amidst their brazen lifestyle and foolhardy personalities, the Bondurant boys eventually face their biggest obstacle in Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce). Rakes is a brutal, corrupt G-man from Chicago who has come to Franklin County to receive a cut of the bootlegging money that’s being raked in. As part of their refusal to cooperate with Rakes and the authorities, the brothers find themselves at the mercy of the law.
As an aside, Chicago mobster Floyd Banner also comes to town but with less clear motives in mind. I suppose his primary role is to act as the resident mobster caricature, which is a pretty questionable utilization of such a great character actor in Gary Oldman. Banner appears in the beginning in a brief drive-by shooting and then again later in the film putting a shovel upside a crony’s head. A more perplexing under-utilization of a character I cannot fathom.
Another brief subplot that doesn’t quite fully develop is that of Jack’s love interest, Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska). Bertha is the typical preacher’s daughter, reserved yet secretly yearning for a rebellious counterpart. Unfortunately, her character is underdeveloped and she comes off as merely a pawn to bring the brothers into direct conflict with Rakes. The further the story progresses, the more the roles become reversed.
This idea of outlaws turned heroes is an age-old tale in cinema, but it’s also a timeless one. On one side, you have the listless arm of the law turned corrupt with the addition of Rakes as their new-found boss. On the other side, you have a rogue group of brothers who live their lives as they see fit regardless of who stands in their way. It’s classic storytelling, albeit redundant at times.
For a gangster period piece, “Lawless” does just enough to scrape by and tell a decent story. There are definitely some vapid characters that get lost in the mix due to underdevelopment and certain subplots that go completely unchecked, but all in all the movie achieves a quality good time.
Also to note: “Lawless” is unwavering in its brutality — scene after scene of blunt-force trauma, blood splattering, moonshine chugging and cigar puffing. It’s a testosterone-laced chest-pounding competition, and everybody in the audience is a winner because of it.