For most of the genre’s history, Prohibition Era films have depended largely on the presence of loud shootouts as opposed to real character development to tell their stories. Although there are exceptions such as The Untouchables, audiences haven’t seen many good examples of what the genre is capable of producing. And while it’s true that every gallon of moonshine created a gallon of shed blood, audiences consistently left with a sense of the violent part of the industry, without knowing the human stories behind them. Lawless seeks to change that by presenting an engrossing and mostly-accurate story that features one of the best ensemble casts to grace the screen in awhile. The home release rises to the occasion, faltering only sporadically in its sound, but standing up to portray one of the most dangerous times of the 20th Century.
The peak of Prohibition was a dangerous world to be sure. Gangsters, having profited from the moonshine they’ve been peddling, have become emboldened to carry out justice on the streets, usually with grotesque results. Among the most successful in Virginia are the Bondurant Boys, led by Howard (Jason Clarke, Public Enemies), Forest (Tom Hardy, The Dark Knight Rises), and Jack (Shia LeBeouf, Transformers). They too have the local police bought and paid for, offering them cases of their White Lightning in exchange for safe passage across Franklin County’s borders. Forest is the leader, a quiet man who sports brass knuckles when things at his dry bar get out of hand. Enter the city girl Maggie (Jessica Chastain, Joelene) who seeks a job at the dry bar; Maggie is the victim of a damaged experience in Chicago and seeks the simple life, but looks and acts strangely to the backwater Howard and Forest. Jack is the third wheel here, never strong enough to do what was necessary, a fact which has made him weak in the eyes of his brothers. A big talker, Jack is eyeing his own distillery with a boyhood friend that will allow him to break free from his brothers’ infamous street cred.
Things turn violent when the local DA introduces the Bondurants to Special County DA Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce, Memento). His attire and perfumed persona speaks dandy, but his complete lack of a moral compass or empathy for others makes him an immediate threat to not only the boys but to the entire state. In many ways, Rakes is more dangerous than the Bondurants or anyone else; his extreme measures play out through the entire film, as he first lays a beatdown on Jack in one of the most memorable scenes of the year, then tarring & feathering a local bootlegger as a message to the boys. They’re mostly unfazed, due to their family’s seemingly indestructible nature. Even a savage attach on Forest doesn’t kill him. Recognizing his opportunity, Jack and friend Cricket Pate (Dane DeHaan, Lincoln) transport all the family’s products to kingpin Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman, The Fifth Element), forging an important alliance while providing the recovering Forest a chance to practice some much-needed vengeance. Soon, Jack is tempted by the beauty of the Mennonite Bertha (Mia Wasikowsa, Alice in Wonderland), whom he thinks represents the center of his American Dream: get the clothes, get the car, and the girl will soon follow. His vanity and naivety is on full-display, even as the violence between the brothers and Rakes intensifies, leading to a climactic battle pitting our two antagonists in a memorable bloodbath.
There’s a sense of authenticity that permeates throughout the picture, almost as if Director John Hillcoat (The Road) and Writer Nick Cave have captured the essence of 20th Century West Virginia from Matt Bondurant’s novel about his family. From the dusty roads to the period dress, Hillcoat brings a texture to the film that’s immediately evident, allowing the film to almost breathe on its own without sacrificing pace or character development. We are simply not causal observers of the events of Franklin County, but an active participant to the epic brutality when one immovable object meets with another irresistible force. Lawless is also a love story, set among the three very different worlds of the Bondurants, Bertha, and Maggie. How the women in a sense take charge of their relationships shows just how ill-prepared the boys are at handling their sometimes misunderstood ways. LaBeouf, Hardy, and Clarke have great chemistry from the start, as does Chastain who does her very best to rise above the testosterone. But it’s the performance by Pearce that should needs to garner some Oscar attention: everything about his portrayal screams creepy, demonstrating the intensity he consistently brings to his roles. He’s been one of Hollywood’s most consistent quality actors, immersing himself in the role to the point that we believe its authenticity. That’s the mark of a true actor.
The only issue I had was the lack of screentime for Oldman, whose big-time gangster portrayal could have been a movie onto itself. He disappears after Act 2, a fact that represents the only plot hole. He’s such a fascinating character for the brief time we see him, vascilating between ultraviolence and humorous exchanges with perfect deftness. These are only small issues that fail to bring the story down. And although it’s a ‘fictional re-imagining’ of Bonduant’s family, everything else fits into place, taking us through a grittier ride than we expected, but ultimately ending up right where it should. When the efficiency of the violence meets up with the very plot-driven human stories contained within Lawless, you know the film has done its job.
Anchor Bay provides audiences with a superior MPEG-4/AVC transfer that paints a realistic picture of 20th Century backwater Virginia. Cinematographer Benoît Delhomme (1408) shoots an impressively balanced scene, from the rustic environment of Franklin County to the facial tones and detail of the actors’ faces. Colors are vibrant throughout, providing a beautiful contrast when needed while playing complimentary roles in other shots. Notice how Chastain’s beautiful crushed red velvet coat stands out from the drab environment of her rural apartment, with every stitch and detail on display. The same can be said for Rakes’s opulent clothing and Forrest’s wide-patterned pants. Human features also stand out, such as LaBeouf’s facial bruises and the individual hairs in Hardy’s beard. Environmental shots from trees lining the hills to the dirt streets of both the city and the Bondurant’s compound, stand out. with remarkable clarity. In a time when high definition exposes every inperfection in a set, Lawless rises above most. Darks and shadows never seem to fight for attention, providing good transitions between them, while allowing color, brightness, and shape to tell their story as well. Look at the way these work during the first meeting between Jack and Bertha – the detail of the car interior is sharp while Bertha’s face and skin tones offer a stark and pleasant contrast. As always, there’s no banding, aliasing, or edge enhancement to speak of, leading to a print that’s as perfect as it can be.
Lawless comes equipped with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that’s good but not terrific, missing in its ability to accurately present louder noises such as gunfire. Whether it’s Oldman’s use of the Thomspon Sub-machine gun, or the vicious gunfight at the film’s conclusion, there always felt like something was missing, either in the lack of a thunderous LFE experience or a general feeling that Sound Designer Christopher Eakins was holding back. It’s more like the track wasn’t allowed to strut its stuff, settling instead for a realistic sound that sadly comes off a bit flat. Perhaps it’s our dependence on pulse-pounding sounds to remind us of whether our surround sound systems still work, but the effort to make it so realistic might have cheapened things too much. The rest of the soundfield is far better, immersing the listener in the sounds of Franklin County’s backroads with great effect. Music also stands out, courtesy of Supervisor David Sardy, who paints an Oh Brother, Where Art Thou feel throughout. All in all, it’s a solid track with just the minor issue standing in the way of a perfect score.
Lawless contains several interesting supplements that help to fill in the blanks about the Bondurant story, which include the following:
- Audio Commentary: Director John Hillcoat and Author Matt Bondurant offer an insightful commentary that helps to mix the truth in Bondurant’s book with the fiction of the film. We learn everything from how Hillcoat gave the movie its name, to the way Pearce brought Rakes to life. Much of the historical period is covered, including the vast differences between rural and city life and the way Hillcoat uses his acumen to paint a vivid picture of the two. You’ll find yourself rewinding certain sections to gain a better understanding of the characters and the way the script tried to bridge the gap between reality and fiction. It’s an enjoyable, well-done track.
- Deleted Scenes (HD, 7:58): There’s not much here that would have changed the story, but it’s interesting to see where these would have been placed had they not interrupted the tone. Among the best are 6 Legged Cow, Howard Tells Forrest that Jack Stole the Moonshine, and Rakes and Feather. Again, I was hoping to see additional scenes of Oldman here. No such luck.
- Lawless: The True Story of the Wettest County in the World (HD, 21:33): The cast and crew bring the backstory to life with a detailed historical overview of the Prohibition Era and the characters who make up the film.
- Franklin County, Virginia: Then & Now (HD, 6:11): This interesting look at the film’s real-life setting helps to contextualize the larger story. Franklin County doesn’t look all that different from the old photos, which is probably how they like it. It’s a great backdrop that Hillcoat uses to perfection.
- The Story of the Bondurant Family (HD, 12:44): Author Matt Bondurant delves into his family’s background that provided the impetus for the book and later the movie.
- Music Video (HD, 1:39): Willie Nelson’s “Midnight Run” is featured.
In addition, Lawless arrives as a Blu-ray combo with a DVD and Digital Copy of the film. There’s no slipcover, nor any interior artwork, which keeps me from giving the supplements a perfect score.
Lawless is a film that defies convention, not merely existing as a gangster tale nor a story purely about bootlegging, but one that finds a compelling balance between those elements and the two love stories. It weaves all three in an honestly unfiltered way, leaving nothing on the table and delivering a compelling tale of the life of Prohibition Era bootleggers. How it failed to perform at the box office will be an enduring mystery to me; but at least we have an exceptional release that looks great and sounds good, along with enough supplements to fill in most blanks about the Bondurant family. It’s one of the most overlooked films of 2012, and certainly worth your time either as a rental or for purchase. Lawless is rated R for nudity, language, and violence, has a runtime of 116 minutes, and comes highly recommended.