Hillbilly Heat: ‘Lawless’ review

by Sonny Bunch on August 28, 2012

The most surprising aspect of Lawless, John Hillcoat’s look at Prohibition-era moonshiners in the foothills of Virginia, is how funny it is. For a movie that prominently features a castration, a gutting, a number of bullet perforations, a neck-snapping, several extremely graphic and realistic-looking beatings, and a rather brutal and unsettling throat-slitting, it sure provoked a lot of laughs.

The Brothers Bondurant—youngest Jack (Shia LeBeouf), middle child Howard (Jason Clarke), and eldest Forrest (Tom Hardy)—distill high-proof booze during the Great Depression, making a tidy little profit without running too much risk. Jack’s a timid feller; he’s no roughneck like his brothers. When fists start flying, odds are that Howard and Forrest are letting them loose while Jack hangs out in the background.

All that changes when the reckless Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) blows into town. He wants to wet his beak on the profits of the illicit hooch. When the Brothers Bondurant refuse, Rakes puts the boots (and fists, and shotgun barrel) to Jack. This is a bloody intrusion that Forrest can’t abide—and feels the family doesn’t have to.

Rumor has it the Brothers Bondurant, and Forrest in particular, are invincible: Forrest has survived World War I, the Spanish Influenza, and life as a hillbilly hustler without missing a beat. He’s a legend in the town—and, possibly, his own mind. He’s not ’bout to back down to some “nance” from Chicago.

His hubris will cost him.

When Forrest finally meets his limits Jack picks up the slack, organizing a whiskey sale to gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) that nets the crew a boatload of dough. Jack uses his portion of the proceeds to woo a pretty young thing: This is a tale of love as well as whiskey. Jack and Forrest fall for Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) and Maggie (Jessica Chastain) respectively—the former’s a religious girl whose father disapproves of the Bondurants; the latter’s a dancing girl who has fled the harsh lights of Chicago to find something a little quieter.

Lawless had a shot at being the Hillbilly Heat—an epic crime saga that cut across lines of good and evil, love and loss, ugly crime and uglier crime—but it gets lost along the way. It feels like there was an entire subplot revolving around Banner and Rakes that hit the cutting room floor—Oldman has about 5 minutes of screen time, six lines, and a relationship with the sadistic special agent that gets mentioned but goes unexamined. I could be wrong (it’s been known to happen!) but Lawless feels like it was hacked apart for reasons of running time and stitched back together into a semi-coherent whole.

Every time Lawless risks getting bogged down in its onscreen horror it veers away from gravity and toward humor—occasionally to its detriment. Much of the comedy emanates from Hardy’s Forrest, whose barely verbal array of harrumphs and hrrms and guhs and grrs are delivered with such impeccable comic timing, and with such a light in his eyes, that the audience can’t help but dig him. This despite the fact that he’s also a barely concealed sociopath whose motto for survival is “We control the fear. And without the fear, we are all as good as dead.”

Indeed, even with Hardy’s charm, if it wasn’t for Shia imbuing Jack’s courtship of Bertha with a little bit of innocence and a heavy dose of levity, the Brothers Bondurant would be hard men to cheer for. We live in An Age of Antiheroes, but audiences have their limits. I imagine Forrest and Howard will blow through those limits for a large segment of the population: Lawless is a very, very hard R.

Not for the squeamish, Lawless is a remarkably entertaining piece of filmmaking that seems more interested in crowd-pleasing than achieving lasting glory—making it a more-than-acceptable end-of-summer barnburner.

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