Judge Clark Douglas was raised on country moonshine.
When the law became corrupt, outlaws became heroes.
"I'm a Bondurant. We don't lay down for nobody."
Facts of the Case
In the prohibition era, Franklin County, Virginia, has developed a reputation as "the wettest county in the world." Illegal liquor flows with ease throughout the county, with local law enforcement content to look the other way in exchange for the occasional donation from local bootleggers. The most prominent members of this particular industry are the Bondurant brothers: the gruff Forrest (Tom Hardy, Warrior), the no-nonsense Howard (Jason Clarke, Public Enemies) and the eager-to-help Jack (Shia LaBeouf, Transformers). The reign of the Bondurant family is threatened when colorful law enforcement agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce, Prometheus) arrives and demands massive bribes. When Forrest refuses Rakes' offer, a violent conflict between savage men on both sides of the law begins.
Lawless is the third film from director John Hillcoat, who has carved out a niche for himself as a helmer of movies about tough men living in hard times. His 2006 debut The Proposition is a masterpiece; arguably the best 21st Century western despite the fact that it's set in Australia. Hillcoat's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road was a disappointment in contrast, but that was primarily due to the fact that the novel was more effective for the manner in which it was written than for the actual plot it delivered. Now Hillcoat has delivered his most blatantly mainstream, accessible picture with Lawless, which plays like an exceptionally satisfying hillbilly version of Boardwalk Empire.
The film is better than its mixed critical reception suggests, though it's easy to see why so many people were disappointed in it: certain elements of the film are so strong that it's a small letdown the movie doesn't emphasize them more. Gary Oldman's character receives the entrance of a new cinematic icon, and then disappears before returning for one more relatively insignificant scene. Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska deliver a handful of sublime little moments, but their efforts are undercut by a script that treats women as mostly insignificant side items. A few immersive moments detailing the local flavor of Franklin County (such as a church service featuring one of the most melodically intense hymns I've ever heard) suggest that we could be in for a nuanced examination of a specific place as rich as The Proposition, when in fact that movie is ultimately more interested in the details of some violent killings.
Despite these disappointments, I'm opting to take a glass-half-full approach to the flick: this is a solid nuts-and-bolts prohibition era drama enlivened by a number of moments that prevent it from feeling routine. There's a lot to like about Lawless, from the rich, sun-baked cinematography to the consistently excellent cast to the poetic weariness of the film's conclusion. It's mainstream, yes, but it never devolves into generic action movie foolishness. The violence the film offers has a good deal of weight; it's a mostly unsentimental examination of men who lived hard, died young and spent little time reflecting on the toll their lifestyle took on them.
In a film loaded with interesting performances, Tom Hardy stands out as the toughest and least eloquent Bondurant brother. His dialogue largely consists of mumbled half-sentences and incoherent grunts; it's almost Brandoesque in its subdued anti-theatricality. On the opposite end of the spectrum we have Guy Pearce, who goes cheerfully over-the-top with his foppish villain. While the character is something of an Evil Queen stereotype, Pearce is so compelling that he compensates for the thin characterization. Even Shia LaBeouf manages to acquit himself pretty well, as the role of a chatty young man who quickly becomes overconfident after some minor successes is right in his comfort zone (indeed, give the character a change of clothes and toss him into the 21st Century and he'd be the guy LaBeouf played in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps).
Lawless (Blu-ray) has received a gorgeous 1080p/2.40:1 transfer that accentuates the fact that this is one of 2012's best-looking films. The lush, sunbaked locations (the film was shot in various parts of rural Georgia) benefit from strong detail throughout, the image has a great deal of depth and flesh tones look warm and natural. I did notice traces of banding during some brief scenes (such as when LaBeouf and Wasikowska are running through the woods in the middle of the day), but otherwise there's nothing to complain about. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is fantastic, with the boisterous sequences giving your speaker system a thorough workout. The track also excels during quieter moments, capturing subtle bits of atmosphere and offering a seamless balance between dialogue and music. The soundtrack is consistently engaging, as screenwriter/composer Nick Cave produces and participates in a host of numbers featuring a wide variety of participants (Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, etc.). There are moments when dialogue can be a little difficult to make out, but that's entirely due to the fact that these backwoods characters (Hardy's in particular) don't have great diction.
The supplemental package is a pretty standard collection of odds n' ends. An audio commentary featuring Hillcoat and director Matt Bondurant (the real-life grandson of the character LaBeouf plays) provides a lot of interesting info on the real-life history behind the film, and is easily the highlight of the package. You also get some decent behind-the-scenes featurettes ("Lawless: The True Story of the Wettest County in the World," "Franklin County, Virginia: Then and Now" and "The Story of the Bondurant Family"), some deleted scenes, a Willie Nelson music video, a DVD copy and a digital copy.
Lawless is a stellar piece of bootlegging-themed entertainment. Its unrelenting violence may prove a bit much for squeamish viewers (the flick definitely earns its R rating in that department), but it's a worthwhile effort that strikes an appealing balance between dramatic thrills and historical authenticity. The Blu-ray looks and sounds excellent.
Not guilty. Just be sure to save me a crate of that good stuff.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
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