Prohibition in America did very little to actually cut down on alcohol consumption, but it did wonders for the criminal underworld, leading to the rise of some of the country’s most nefarious criminal legends.
As John Hillcoat’s “Lawless” shows, Prohibition was the driving force behind one of the most violent and turbulent periods in American history.
While many Prohibition-era films focus on the gangsters in Chicago, “Lawless” features a different aspect of the illegal booze trade. Hundreds of miles from the Windy City in Franklin County, Virginia, the Bondurant brothers make the moonshine that the gangsters in Chicago sell for a hefty profit.
Tom Hardy, keeping his mumbly Bane voice from “The Dark Knight Rises,” plays the family’s eldest brother and leader of the family, Forrest. Australian actor, Jason Clarke, is Howard — the middle brother and the family’s doer-of-dirty-work and perpetual screw-up. Shia LaBeouf, who surprisingly does a good job in this film, rounds out the brothers as the little brother playing at being a gangster, Jack. The book on which the film is based, “The Wettest County in the World,” is actually written by Jack’s grandson, Matt Bondurant.
The slaying of a Chicago bootlegger by mobster Floyd Banner (played by Gary Oldman who in only a few minutes in the film leaves quite the impression) draws the attention of federal lawman, Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce). It doesn’t take long to find out that Rakes is less interested in stopping the production of alcohol and more interested in controlling those that do and making a profit from them for the district attorney. Rake could have been a cookie-cutter villain, an eccentric crooked cop from Chicago, standing out like a sore thumb against the bootleggers of Virginia, but Pearce lets the character completely engulf him. Pearce adds little idiosyncrasies to the character, like his need to constantly be wearing driving gloves, his aversion to dirt, his complete distaste in rural life, that make him unique. Rakes is so strange and over-the-top that he seems oddly real.
Mixed into the story about making and selling illegal booze and fighting corrupt lawmen is two love stories that don’t quite get fleshed out in the way that they deserve. Jessica Chastain plays a retired exotic dancer from Chicago, Maggie Beauford, who has an eye for Forrest, and Mia Wasikowska plays a preacher’s daughter who piques the interest of young Jack. The two women couldn’t have picked a worst time to enter the lives of the Bondurant boys.
While all of the other moonshiners agree to cut a deal with the district attorney, Forrest, who is without a doubt of the “Speak softly and carry a big stick” school of thought, decides to make a stand. Rakes being something of an opportunistic coward — the type that relishes an opportunity to kick a man while he’s down — takes Forrest’s insolence out on Jack and his friend, Cricket (Dane DeHaan from “Chronicle”). Rakes’ actions eventually lead to the film’s inevitable and bloody conclusion — a standoff that plays out in a way that I did not see coming.
The ultra-violence in “Lawless” will come as no surprise to fans of the film’s makers, Hillcoat and writer Nick Cave. The director and writer, who is a well-known Australian musician, teamed up in 2005 to make the down-and-dirty Western set in the Australian outback, “The Proposition,” which also stars Pearce. Much like the film’s protagonist, the bulldog of a man, Forrest, the film can switch from serene to explosive at a moment’s notice. Much of the film’s action is not for the faint of heart or those with queasy stomachs, but as Hillcoat is no doubt trying to point out, this was not a peaceful time in America’s history.