Having perfectly captured the gritty brutality of late 19th century Australia in The Proposition, the winning writing/directing team of Nick Cave and John Hillcoat are at it again.
In Lawless, the action switches to the prohibition era in America, but rather than focus on the gangs in the cities, here the story concerns the three Bondurant brothers, happily making moonshine in the hills of Franklin County, Virginia.
The eldest brother, Forrest (Tom Hardy), is a man of few words but explosive violence, trying to keep his family ‘business’ alive. Second brother Howard (Jason Clarke) gets wild with the drink while baby of the family, Jack (Shia LaBeouf), is overshadowed by his siblings, until he and his best mate Cricket (Dane DeHaan) create a hooch so good, they manage to sell it to city hoodlum Floyd (Gary Oldman).
But the Bondurants’ success is noticed by other big players on the moonshine scene and the psychopathic Special Deputy Charles (Guy Pearce) is sent in to shut them down using any means. What follows is bloody, brutal and becomes increasingly personal as the Bondurants and those who are close to them come under attack.
Cave and Hillcoat never shy away from the violence running through the movie, but they never glamourise it either – bones are broken, flesh is bruised and cut and lives are lost. However, the dark tension is nicely offset by a surprising amount of humour (the brooding hulk of Hardy’s physical self sporting a cardie while he mumbles incoherently) and two female characters who go some way to softening what would otherwise have been a testosterone feast. Jessica Chastain is excellent as Maggie who works at the family’s gas station and becomes increasingly bound up with Forrest, while Mia Wasikowska plays preacher’s daughter Bertha with a nice sparkiness as she attracts Jack’s eye. Meanwhile, Dane DeHaan as the chirpy Cricket almost steals the limelight from LaBeouf in the scenes they share.
Hillcoat paints his story so vividly you can feel the steam and smoke rising from the whisky stills and taste the moonshine at the back of your throat. It’s also nice to see a film about the prohibition era told from the roots up – concentrating on the cottage industry of the people who actually made the moonshine and not set in the big city and featuring smart-suited gangsters.