The third collaboration between director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave (singer-songwriter and frontman of The Bad Seeds), Lawless is one of the biggest surprises of 2012. The moonshine-themed organized crime film kind of slipped under the radar when it was released theatrically in late August. Reviews leaned positive, but generally mixed. After screening the film on Blu-ray, I can say it’s one of my favorites of the year. Gritty, well-acted, and violent as hell, Lawless is bolstered by a revelatory lead performance by Shia LaBeouf. Forget any preconceived notions you might have about him (and his generally off-putting interview persona), he anchors this film with his mature, nuanced work.
Lawless is set in Franklin County, Virginia during the waning days of the Prohibition era. The Bondurant brothers—Jack (LaBeouf), Forrest (Tom Hardy), and Howard (Jason Clark)—operate one of the most successful bootlegging outfits around. Officially they run a gas station, but their real bread and butter is moonshine. Trouble arrives in the form of Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a crooked official who demands a cut of the Bondurant’s profits. Unwilling to cooperate, a tug of war begins between the Bondurants and Virginian government officials. Lots of blood is shed, but the finer points and quieter character moments are what drive Lawless more than action (though there is plenty of that, well-staged by Hillcoat).
The cast is simply outstanding. Hardy continues to prove why he is one of the most chameleonic actors working today. As Forrest, Hardy conveys more with a look or a few grunted words than many actors are able to with a full monologue. Pearce is also superb as he finds a unique approach for the “bad guy” role that could’ve easily become a forgettable cliché in less-skilled hands. Adding a genuinely heartfelt romantic angle are Jessica Chastain as Maggie, a Chicago waitress hired by the Bondurants, and Mia Wasikowska as the preacher’s daughter, Bertha. Maggie falls into relationship with Forrest, while Bertha becomes involved with Jack. If all that weren’t enough, Gary Oldman is on hand for a small but powerful performance as gangster Floyd Banner. One of the finest ensemble casts assembled this year? Without question.
Important enough to Lawless that it almost becomes a side character in its own right is the soundtrack, created by Nick Cave and fellow Bad Seed Warren Ellis. They put together an ad hoc bluegrass band for the movie’s music, dubbed The Bootleggers. Emmylou Harris and Mark Lanegan front the group, putting a new spin on The Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat” (reprised over the end credits by Ralph Stanley) and Townes Van Zandt’s “Snake Song,” among others. Cave and Ellis contributed a pair of new originals, “Fire in the Blood” and “Cosmonaut,” while Willie Nelson chips in with the rousing “Midnight Run.” The great music is just another example of how the filmmakers behind Lawless paid attention to the details, making every aspect count.