“It is not the violence that sets men apart. It is the distance he is prepared to go.” Old west pragmatism oozes through the gruff words of Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy), the 1930s bootlegger and all around bear of a man at the center of John Hillcoat’s Depression-era gangster film, Lawless. One of three brothers profferring booze to Chicago gangsters from their country Virginia stills, Forrest is seemingly indestructible, a local legend for his endurance and survival. The same cannot be said of his younger sibling Jack (Shia LaBeouf), the embodiment of American ambition, who becomes a human punching bag when faced with the slightest conflict. Surname aside, Forrest and Jack couldn’t be more different in size and nature, and they come to represent contrasting visions of Manifest Destiny crashing against each other through family.
Parallel to the battle between tradition and progress runs a sturdy Western theme, and Lawless imbeds the fear of economic expansion in the nuances of brotherly resolve. Ultimately, the two men must confront their ideological conflicts when urban corruption and violence invade the Bondurant’s small town of Franklin, in the form of a corrupt D.A. and his hired gun, a reptilian neat freak named Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce). This subtext makes Hillcoat’s brutal violence all the more potent. Forrest’s consistent use of brass knuckles on adversaries says a lot about his desire (and ability) to end fights quickly, protecting his family and profit margin with little fuss. In this sense, Lawless uses the gangster film genre to defend the virtues and returns of protecting a small business from corporate takeover.
Loyalty and revenge dominate the film’s mostly messy narrative arc. But convention is only a means to an end for Hillcoat, whose contained vision of Prohibition-era America lingers on intimate details of human suffering; dirt hitting a coffin face, the fluttering of scorched leaves propelled into the air by a dynamite blast, and the gurgling blood from a slit throat are all reminders that Hillcoat’s cinema is equally brutal and poetic. Also, the Great Depression may not be the film’s central focus, but the disparate souls littering the roadsides further remind us that life outside the gangster universe is equally gritty, if not more dispiriting. These images are often juxtaposed with Nick Cave’s brooding score.
Both Hardy and Pearce’s superb method performances deserve the attention they will inevitably receive, and LaBeouf nicely realizes a balance of tenderness and sleaze. But ultimately, Hillcoat sees performance as a way to induce mood, a way to explore landscapes and interiors through an actor’s physical stature. One of the more wonderfully blunt examples of this approach comes early in the film when infamous gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) stops his speeding car on Franklin’s main drag, walks calmly up the boulevard, and shreds his pursuer’s vehicle with Tommy gun fire. Jack witnesses the shootout from close range, and the slight grin Banner gives him while calmly walking away speaks volumes about the near-mystical divide between gangsterdom and reality.
While Lawless goes astray during an odd prologue mired in voice-over, it’s a genre film with many bold ideas and characterizations. Hillcoat’s ongoing deconstruction of backwoods legends, something he and Cave began to address in the grimy, sweat-soaked The Proposition (2005), takes a more sobering and human turn in Lawless. This is the American outback in all its bloody glory.
Glenn Heath Jr. is a film critic for Slant Magazine, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, The L Magazine, and The House Next Door. Glenn is also a full-time Lecturer of Film Studies at Platt College and National University in San Diego, CA.