‘Where’s the still, where’s the liquor and where’s the money?’

Guns and crime unite in John Hillcoat’s rural gangster film Lawless that tells the (mainly) true tale of the brotherly love and lawless lives of the Bondurant brothers and their alcoholic enterprise.

Business is good for the entrepreneurial Bondurant brothers as production and sales are at a high. Their goods are bootleg spirits, a product in high demand at the time of the prohibition that is meant to be keeping the country alcohol free but, in fact, ensures that illegal distilleries remain entirely profitable. However, it’s not all plain sailing for the brothers of Franklin Country – they have to deal with Chicago’s criminal fraternities, not to mention the lawmakers from the city, such as Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce). Rakes has his own interpretation of the law that is brutal in its instigation and he is relentless in pursuit of bootleggers. Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) are content to maintain the status quo, taking a brutal approach if necessary, but younger brother Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf) wants to enjoy the high-life, the big cars and the fancy city clothes. He gets together with his friend Cricket Pate (Dane DeHaan) to try and put the shine into their moonshine operation, dealing directly with gangster legend Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman). But is this a business prospect that is perhaps too daunting and how will it affect the family and Jack’s burgeoning relationship with the local minister’s daughter?

A welcome and occasionally shocking return to the gangster genre, a familiar part of American cultural history as seen in such classics as Little Caesar (1931) and Scarface (1932), Lawless takes the action predominantly away from city sensibilities. In some ways this savage account of men of crime and their adversaries, the morally dubious lawmakers, is rather like a Tommy Gun Western. Director John Hillcoat and writer Nick Cave (adapting the book ‘The Wettest County in the World’ by Matt Bondurant that looks at the lives of his grandfather and other relatives) have worked together on many occasions, most notably on The Proposition (2005), an intelligent, violent Western set in Australia, that Lawless mirrors in many ways, pitching as it does, a family of criminals against an unconventional authority who represents the law. And Lawless is a film that treats violence, as The Proposition did, as something that is indicative of the brutality of the times rather than simply being part of the action.

Setting the film away from the city, the usual location for prohibition/gangster films (indeed the film’s financing was initially concerned with developing a city based film for perceived better box office returns) helps Lawless focus on some of the alternative social aspects of the times; the church congregations, the practical elements of country living and, especially, the relationship between the brothers in their close-knit environment. The performances are excellent and the predominantly country-based soundtrack, by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, reinforces this.

A violent film but an engaging one, Lawless offers an alternative perspective on a well established genre.