Produced by Benaroya Pictures
Directed by John Hillcoat
Screenplay by Nick Cave from the novel by Matt Bondurant
Distributed by The Weinstein Company


Whenever I think of Prohibition movies, I inevitably see Jimmy Cagney smiling rakishly as he shrugs his shoulders to make sure his double-breasted jacket drapes just so.  He’s the city-boy gangster dressed in high fashion, from his rolled Homburg to his gleaming wing tips.  He has made his money on illegal booze, and he feels no need to apologize for it.  He’s fast, lithe, utterly engaging, and, when necessity arises, absolutely ruthless.  Except, of course, when it comes to his mom, to whom he’s unflaggingly devoted.

I’m sorry to say you won’t find a Cagney aspirant in Lawless, the Prohibition-era film about the underappreciated Bondurant brothers, adapted from Matt Bondurant’s novelization of the story of his grandfather and uncles during the Great Depression.  No tailored suits here, at least not in the early scenes.  These fellers are hicks in bib overalls making a cloudy moonshine potent enough to kick a mule into next week.  Their brew also keeps the neighbors—including the local constabulary, who are happy to ignore the brothers’ business as long as a goodly supply of hooch continues to flow their way free of charge—neighborly.  If and when a revenuer threatens to pay a visit, the local lawmen instantly alert the Bondurants, along with every other moonshiner in Franklin County, Virginia.  One of the film’s funnier moments comes when director John Hillcoat pulls his camera back to show us a hillside dotted with stills, all fired up for a night’s production.  I couldn’t count them all, but it seemed no less than 40 or 50 flaming away, each a fiery reproach to the lunatic do-gooders who were heaven-bent on saving the tippling public from itself.

The arrangement is smooth as a belt of white lightning, until the inevitable happens.  An unusually grasping revenuer out of Chicago gets posted to Franklin.  He’s Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), an enterprising fellow who knows an opportunity when he sees it, and few opportunities were more opportune than Prohibition.  Wearing tailored suits and redolent of cologne, he sneeringly goes about teaching the hicks the ways of the big city, one of which is that they must pay him 30 percent of their profits if they want their trade to continue flourishing unmolested.  The moonshiners all agree—except for Forrest, the elder Bondurant.  He takes exception to the smell of Rake’s aftershave.  He apparently finds the odor just too federal to bear.

The narrative proceeds to dramatize Rake’s attempts to bring the obstinately local Forrest and his brothers into line with modern thinking.  He sends two thugs to their gas station-cum-bar, where they proceed to threaten the barmaid.  Forrest walks in on them and teaches them what’s expected of gentlemen, with a few clobbering punches and a kick or two.  For his efforts, the two thugs come back later and cut his throat, as they say, ear to ear.  From this moment things get ugly.

How authentic is grandson Bondurant’s novelized version of his family’s exploits?  I can’t say.  It seems reasonably credible to me, although he’s made it clear in interviews that the film takes license with his book when it comes to violence and, perhaps, the specifics of the brothers’ relations with the stronger sex.  The scenes in which Forrest and Howard perform a disabling operation on a couple of rapists may be a bit of cinematic embroidery.  Whether or no, I applaud Hillcoat’s decision to avoid a direct close-up presentation of the surgery.  Doing so would have caused a rustling distraction as the men in the audience reflexively closed their knees all at once.

Whatever the exact truth, the Bondurants seem to have been certifiable roughnecks, albeit with a code of honor—at least when they were half sober.  They weren’t entirely unlike many decent people who made hooch during Prohibition, as did my grandfather.  Like most of the federally instigated lawbreakers, he was content to make only enough for himself, his friends, and his neighbors, supplementing his Brooklyn dockworker paycheck with a little extra from his less-well-known visitors.  He was too smart—not to mention honest—to go further than that.  Besides, he differed from the Bondurants in one crucial way: By the time Prohibition had started, he and my grandmother had brought into this world the first five of their ten sons, which, come to think of it, must have been reason enough to resort to the occasional alcoholic beverage.  He knew where a more ambitious breaking of the Volstead Act stipulations would likely lead, and, with an accumulating family at home, he wasn’t about to take an extended vacation in a federal penitentiary.  The Bondurants, on the other hand, were single and childless until Prohibition was over.

What’s most interesting about this film is its dramatization of the evil of Prohibition.  In the popular movies of past decades, questions of the justice of Prohibition and its enforcers were almost never raised.  Certainly, the popular 1960’s television series The Untouchables, featuring an almost wholly ahistorical Eliot Ness, never addressed them.  Even when Brian De Palma brought a slightly more plausible Ness to the big screen in 1987, using a script by the dependably cynical David Mamet, almost nothing was said about the futility and harm the anti-alcohol zealotry inflicted on our nation, a harm that continues to this day in the form of organized crime that got its start by serving the public at large what it wanted.  Bondurant’s novel and Nick Cave’s adaptation, on the other hand, incarnate the evil of America’s “noble experiment” in the person of the revenuer Rakes, whom Guy Pearce renders perfectly as the kind of sinister hypocrite who ably manipulates the good intentions of naive bureaucrats to his own advantage.  Pearce is in fact the most interesting presence in the film.  His slightly turned-up nose and flanged muzzle express an almost supernatural contempt for his fellow men.  There’s another bad man in the story: Floyd Banner, a big-time bootlegger who illuminates Rakes’ special viciousness.  Banner is played by Gary Oldman, who once again disappears into a role to such an extent that you’ll have to look twice to be sure that this is the same actor who plays Commissioner Gordon in the Batman films and George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  With nothing more than a thin mustache, Oldman makes himself unrecognizable portraying a murderer who is nevertheless not nearly capable of Rakes’ federally backed evil.  Banner may kill to secure his illegal trade, but he does so as a matter of practical necessity.  Rakes kills to display his contempt for those he considers his inferiors.

The other performers may not be equally good, but they’re all competent.  As Forrest, Tom Hardy is a hulking man of few grunts who nevertheless proves smart enough to see what must be done when confronted by a threat.  His youngest brother, Jack, is played by Shia LaBeouf, an actor whom the studios keep pushing at us unaccountably.  He’s OK—just—as the kid brother out of his brothers’ league until he fully imbibes the lessons they thoughtfully pass on to him, mostly by wordless example.  Jason Clarke plays Howard, the middle brother, submerging himself almost selflessly into the role of a near imbecile who only stirs himself into a semblance of rational thought when there’s violence to be perpetrated.  Jessica Chastain, who seems to be appearing in every movie currently being released, plays Forrest’s self-appointed moll.  As usual, she’s very capable and also unconventionally beautiful, with her sharp features and red hair.  What’s more, she’s agreed to appear nude in one shadowy scene.  This is a dramatic necessity, of course.  How else could Hillcoat prove that she offers herself to Forrest and that he rather fumblingly accepts?  We couldn’t possibly have inferred this otherwise.

A further word about this.  It’s been generally established that moviegoers would prefer not to see actresses appear unclothed.  Not that the guys in the audience are averse to womanly charms, but they’re not so comfortable when those charms are flaunted in a theater or on TV when they’re with their sisters, their mothers, or their children.  So why do directors continue to decorate their films with actors in the buff?  At a guess, I’d say they do it to please themselves.  If I can get this gal to expose herself to millions, how much easier will it be to . . . You get the picture.

The other principal actress is Mia Wasikowska, who plays a minister’s daughter.  She is delightful and convincing as an overly protected young woman who is amused by Jack’s boyish bravado and what she considers his criminal playacting until she finds out he isn’t pretending.  Somehow she contrives to make her pretty face plain and registers the young woman’s curious blend of wisdom and naiveté.  Her acting is almost on a plane with Pearce’s and Oldman’s.

By the way, this very American film was directed and written by Australians and features three Australian and two British actors.  What does this say about America’s thespian future?