Director John Hillcoat reteams with screenwriter and musician Nick Cave for this prohibition-era tale of bootlegging set in Franklin County, Virginia; the wettest county in the world. Adapted from Matt Bondurant's novel about his grandfather and great-uncles, Lawless streamlines its source and follows Bondurant brothers Jack, Howard and Forrest as they grow a moonshine business under constant threat from outside competitors and the law. Hillcoat and Cave again create an exquisitely staged and shot film, with beautiful, haunting images that recall the pair's last collaboration, The Proposition. Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Jessica Chastain and Guy Pearce are standouts in an excellent cast, and Lawless matches Bondurant's excellent novel in intensity and visual prose.
A decade of prohibition did little to curb the mountainside distilling done in rural Virginia. Law enforcers drank as much as the next man, and most Virginia bootleggers stayed far away from the mob-controlled liquor trade in Chicago and New York City. Forrest (Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (LaBeouf) Bondurant run a restaurant and bar by day and distillery by night. Gruff, headstrong Forrest calls the shots, and Forrest keeps the Bondurant business local to avoid unnecessary trouble. The government gets serious about enforcement toward the end of Prohibition, and Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Pearce) shows up in Franklin County looking for blood and booze. Youngest Bondurant brother Jack rebels against Forrest and the perpetually drunk Howard, and goes behind his brothers' backs and works out a risky distribution deal with gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman).
Screenwriter Cave made a number of changes when bringing Matt Bondurant's novel to the screen. The biggest is dropping the novel's second narrative, which follows writer Sherwood Anderson as he searches for bootleggers in the Virginia mountains. Cave crafts a sharp, linear screenplay for Lawless, and necessarily avoids the novel's period-hopping flashbacks. Bondurant's "The Wettest County in the World" is intensely absorbing and lyrically written, but at times frustrates with its diversions away from the Bondurant brothers. The novel is also graphically violent, and Lawless retains much of this unpleasant, shocking brutality. Gone are characters like the Bondurant patriarch and sisters, but Cave retains beautiful waitress Maggie Beauford (Chastain) and Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska), the tragic love interests of Forrest and Jack, respectively, as well as Jack's bootlegging buddy Cricket Pate (Dane DeHaan).
Pearce chews through his role as the angry enforcer, threatening the Bondurants and other bootlegging men not used to outside pressure. Lesser men cave and start paying to play, but Forrest, Howard and Jack refuse to be intimidated. Rakes is disgustingly brutal, and exhibits an almost boyish insolence when the Bondurants don't roll over and repent. Actors James Franco, Ryan Gosling and others reportedly circled roles as Bondurant brothers, but Hillcoat settled on a diverse cast that delivers. Hardy, coming off a career-high performance as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, plays Forrest exactly as I'd hoped; mumbling and grumbling through Lawless and somehow becoming both the film's silent avenger and comic relief. Clarke is similarly excellent, though his Howard takes a back burner to brothers Forrest and Jack. Howard causes much hardship for Forrest, financially and physically, and constantly drowns his shame with rotgut whiskey. A drunken Howard is almost feral; he can knock out a man with one punch and, in one powerful scene, howls like a wolf to warn Jack of impending danger. LaBeouf finally graduates to real acting here, and brings a whip-smart energy to Jack, who tries to woo Bertha, a preacher's daughter, with flashy cars and suits. Jack is na´ve, but remains loyal to his brothers even when they dismiss him.
Hillcoat continues his successful string of powerful dramas, and Lawless follows The Proposition and fellow literary adaptation The Road. Hillcoat has proven adept at tackling dark material, and Lawless retains all the violence and pain of its subject without losing its humanity and humor. As with his previous projects, many individual shots in Lawless are picture perfect. Hillcoat shoots the Georgia landscape, doubling for Virginia, with a keen eye for framing and an appreciation of natural light, and the director makes his digitally shot period piece look much more filmic than Michael Mann did for his distractingly modern-looking Public Enemies. Cave pulls double duty here, and contributes both the screenplay and score, which is a nice mix of instrumental and folk music.
The film's screenplay may be a bit too spartan, and Lawless occasionally gets ahead of itself before the audience can catch its breath. The Bondurant brothers are not especially fleshed out in Matt Bondurant's novel, and some viewers may find the lack of backstory and internal debate disappointing. Even so, Hillcoat and his actors do a lot with what is there, and supporting actors Chastain and Wasikowska add much to the story. Cave's screenplay wisely focuses the story, and Hillcoat culls impressive performances from his troupe of actors. Invincible Forrest, wild Howard and optimistic Jack are an impressive trio, and Lawless is an exciting, polished look at a volatile period in recent history.
Shot with Arri Alexa digital cameras, Lawless exhibits impressive detail and clarity in its 2.35:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer. The image is razor-sharp, with a beautiful HD pop that transfers nicely to Blu-ray. From the lines on Forrest's face to the golden stills nestled amid the Virginia mountains to the dirt roads of Franklin County, every detail is perfectly rendered. Hillcoat retains a film-like texture throughout despite the use of digital cameras, which is welcome for this period piece. The director uses a lot of natural light, and colors absolutely pop. The natural greens and yellows of the countryside are perfectly saturated, as are the violent reds and blacks of blood and bullets. A couple of outdoor scenes appear a bit too cranked, with high contrast that brings some digital edginess to the image. But, this is likely the result of using bright, natural light, and these scenes look as they did in theaters. Black levels are surprisingly robust, and crush is hardly an issue. I noticed only brief shimmering, and no compression artifacts.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is impressively immersive. Dialogue is clear and balanced, and the track includes plenty of directional dialogue and effects pans. Ambient effects, like the crickets of a Virginia night and the rustling of a campfire, surround the viewer, and action effects like gunfire and thrown punches assault the viewer from the rear speakers. The subwoofer springs to life to support the action, as well as the score, and the mix exhibits excellent range and clarity throughout. English SDH and Spanish subtitles are available.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
Anchor Bay releases Lawless for The Weinstein Company in a three-disc "combo pack" that includes the Blu-ray, a DVD copy of the film and a digital copy disc. The discs are housed in a hinged Blu-ray case. There are a number of interesting extras that complement the film:
Bootlegging in prohibition-era Virginia makes for an exciting backdrop in Lawless, an adaptation of Matt Bondurant's novel about his whiskey distilling grandfather and great-uncles. Director John Hillcoat reteams with Nick Cave to craft a beautiful, intense film about the three Bondurant brothers running a whiskey operation and fighting outside competition and the law. With an excellent cast led by Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf and Jessica Chastain, Lawless retains the violent poetry of Bondurant's novel but streamlines the action for the silver screen. Highly Recommended.