Matt Bondurant’s Appalachia-set Prohibition novel, The Wettest County in the World, is a powerful, uniquely American classic. A brawler’s spirit and a poetic heart, the deeply personal story took us along for the ride as he explored his rather colorful family tree, specifically his grandfather and two great uncles, three of the most infamous bootleggers in all of Franklin County, VA. A thick entrepreneurial spirit courses through every page, personified in the struggle to survive during the turbulent 1930s in the mountainous backwater region.
Lawless doesn’t have the same aspirations as Bondurant’s muscular novel does, however. It’s a celebrity showcase with pizazz and Chicago mobsters with big tommy guns spraying bullets through gritted teeth. It’s a flashy and action-packed gangster movie in the true Hollywood style, and while it may strip away much of what made Bondurant’s novel great, Lawless packs enough violence, crazy performances, and shoot-outs to be one of the most entertaining movies of the season.
Franklin County is known as the “wettest county” for a very good reason. It’s the epicenter of moonshine trafficking in all of Virginia, with nearly everybody including the corrupt local cops in on it in some fashion. The forests are lit up bright with the fires of cooking moonshine. The stuff is basically the lifeblood of the entire county and flows like water from the mountaintops. Tom Hardy grunts his way through another bruising, powerful performance as Forrest Bondurant, the brains of the three Bondurant boys who most say are the worst thing to ever hit Franklin County. He runs their bootlegging operation with an eerie cold streak that runs counter to the bursts of violence of which he’s very capable. Shia LaBeouf is the real centerpiece of the story as Jack, the dreamer of the brothers with hopes of living the Al Capone lifestyle of fast cars and fast women. But it’s obvious Jack isn’t cut out for the bloodshed and the violence of that life. The oldest Bondurant brother, Howard, is a loyal and hulking figure with a hot temper and unquenchable thirst for home made whiskey. He practically sweats the stuff.
A gloomy air of foreboding seeps through the pores of the film, which shouldn’t be all that surprising considering it comes from the tandem of director John Hillcoat and musician/screenwriter, Nick Cave. Between the two of them they’ve become the standard bearers for desolation thrillers with The Road and The Proposition. Cave strips down Bondurant’s story to the bare essentials, reveling in the brass knuckle gore and spurting of slit throats. A deft combination of excess and detachment, Cave’s script reaches into the dark corners to mine every ounce of pitch black humor to help mellow the mood.
This being a gangster film in the truest sense of the word, of course it’s the law that ultimately comes calling, personified in a distractingly over-the-top performance by Guy Pearce as special agent Charley Rakes. It’s the one note of the film that never feels real, almost as if it was transplanted from some other movie where mobsters are spoofed and satirized. His sexually deviant prissy-boy version of Rakes differs wildly from the novel, and it’s not exactly clear why anyone would think it makes any sense in a film that is so grounded in every other respect.
The appearance of Rakes, along with big city outlaw Floyd Banner(Gary Oldman in a dazzling if tiny performance), signals the winds of oncoming change on little old Franklin County, and the notoriously stubborn Forrest isn’t having it. As the walls begin to close in on their little corner of the world, the Bondurant boys are forced to get more creative and more vicious than ever to hold on to what little they’ve got.
The world inhabited by the Bondurants is so fraught with danger at every turn that you can’t help but fear for every supporting character introduced into it. Dane DeHaan, who played the lead in Chronicle earlier this year, plays Jack’s crippled best buddy, Cricket, an obvious target for Rakes’ lust for violence. Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain flit in and out of the story as the only two dateable women in town. All three are excellent, as one might expect, although those who read the novel will likely find Chastain an odd fit for the mysterious Maggie.
LaBeouf briefly sheds his tendency to turn every character into milquetoast whiners, and gives one of his finest performances yet. He’s doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb amongst this field of acting heavyweights, presenting Jack as a small town boy with big city aspirations but naive of that dream’s cost. Hardy brings much of the spring-coiled menace he brought to Warrior, along with the confidence that made his Bane so intimidating.
Fans of Bondurant’s novel may take issue with some of the things that were left out, but Lawless makes for one lean, mean, whiskey soaked crowd-pleaser worth taking a deep drink from.