Bootlegging Brothers Mixing up Trouble
In Lawless, an explosively feisty flick set in prohibition 1930s Virginia, three notorious brothers run their own moonshine bootlegging business. It’s a lower class operation compared to the established gangsters of the area, and by established I mean that they wear nice suits and open machine guns in broad daylight. They have power, and they also control the fear, which is a lethal combination to have, especially in the wooded, main road town in which the film takes place.
These are all set pieces, cliched parts to the outdoor gangster film, filled stock full with standard shootouts and conventional characters. But Lawless, directed by John Hillcoat and written by Nick Cave, and based off Matt Bondurant‘s real-life novel, blends them together with surprising grit and passion. Bondurant tells his family story, a tale of three brothers, bootlegging their way through violent competetion and corruption. Hillcoat, without burying the plot in complex, heavy thematics, still adds an ominous visuality with a dark, musty lens. This is both an indicator of the Virginia wilderness and also homage to gangster classics that fed off stark contrasting hues, often signifying life in front of and behind closed doors.
The brothers are Howard (Jason Clarke), Forrest (Tom Hardy), and Jack (Shia LaBeouf), oldest to youngest, but it’s Forrest who’s in charge of the operation. Played with powerful subtlety by Hardy, Forrest contains both the dialect and notoriety of Jeff Bridge’s Rooster Cogburn, known by many, understood by the closest listeners. He grunts and groans, passes judgment to Jack in growling counsel, all under the infamous guise that he is incapable of being killed, a farcicle tale of mortality. This is a threatening epithet for some and a challenge for others, but somehow his body is on a mission, which is impressive considering the film’s violence meter raises steadily, catering to a possible tagline as “I see your physical defamation and I raise you some bullet wounds.”
But Lawless emotionally is told from Jack’s perspective, the “good” one in which Forrest is wary of letting into the family business. Jack’s only contributions come from driving the moonshine from place to place, but his ambition is to move from the driver’s seat to the passenger side. He is unphased by death but still marvels at rifle shells, especially ones that come from established mobster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman). Attempting to prove his worth, Jack starts to run the business on his own after Forrest is physically unable. LaBeouf is less angsty and screamy, but he commands screen time with veterans, that although have less instrumental roles, still emit an undeniable, overshadowing presence.
One of these other veterans is Guy Pearce who plays a Chicago policeman named Rakes, looking to eradicate the bootlegging industry. His greasy cowlick is a glaring divider for a head that seems to be screwed on too tight. His polished gray suits stand out amongst the dirt ridden locals, making him an object of envy and outsider loathing. Pearce speaks with squeaky conviction and corrupted confidence, handling a gun too easily, brutally beating others like his routine. His maniacality comes in little things, like slowly pocketing his white laced gloves.
It is a brutal world but Jack wants a part of it. Paralleling The Godfather and Goodfellas in this manner, proving oneself becomes an overambitious attempt to gain instant credibility. Balancing Jack however is bootlegging partner in crime and friend (Dane Dehaan) and a tender love interest (Mia Wasikowski). She is the town preacher’s daughter, with a father that is weary of his lingering, courting presence. She brings a lighter, naturalistic side to both Jack and the film, as does Jessica Chastain, who magnetizes Forrest with her refined beauty and bare-skinned presence. Provocative, enticing and a former dancer, her pastel dresses and red hair literally and figuratively add color to the Bondurant’s headquarters in which she serves coffee.
This is a man’s world however, or at least a violent one. I screened this shortly after the Aurora shooting and it seems this film, like Gangster Squad, could have easily been pushed back a few months as well. The gun powder becomes desensitizing as it reaches its climactic end, a chilling mob and police revolutionary era standoff. In this case, the performances, the sum of the parts, can overpower the whole, which lacks a certain gravitas and weight. In this type of film however, illegal alcohol can still taste mighty fine.