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.
Shot digitally with Arri Alexa cameras under the direction of cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, Lawless looks remarkably film-like on Blu-ray. The 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer is framed at 2.35:1 and looks basically flawless. Black levels are deep, colors are warm and evocative of the story’s era, and detail is tremendous. Equally perfect is the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless mix. Dialogue, even when mumbled with thick hillbilly accents, is crystal clear and audible over the din of the noisier scenes. Shootouts create a realistically immersive atmosphere. The music tends to stay predominantly upfront, but expands out to the surrounds when appropriate. The technical presentation is a great match for the excellence of the film itself.
Supplemental features aren’t terribly extensive, but what is here is uniformly worth checking out. The commentary track is its strongest asset. Lawless was based on the historical novel The Wettest County in the World, by Matt Bondurant (grandson of the real-life Jack Bondurant). The author joins director Hillcoat for an exceptionally informative track that delves into all aspects of the film and its historical roots. Bondurant is also on hand for “The Story of the Bondurant Family” featurette (13 minutes) that expands on some of what we hear in the commentary. The 20-minute “The True Story of the Wettest County in the World” offers a slightly more-substantial-than-average EPK piece. There are also eight minutes of deleted scenes, a short featurette about Franklin County, and a video for Willie Nelson’s “Midnight Run.” Also included is a standard DVD version as well as a Digital Copy.
Authentically gritty, uncompromisingly violent, and loaded with knockout performances, Lawless is a standout of 2012. With impeccable technical presentation and features that actually enhance the experience, it’s also one of the best Blu-rays.