Referring to Scotch whisky, William Faulkner once said, "It's the nearest thing to good moonshine I can find." Clearly a fan of the white lightning so closely associated with the poor white South that he romanticized in his novels, Faulkner's spirit looms large in director John Hillcoat's brilliant, Gothic follow-up to The Road (his 2009 movie based on Cormac McCarthy's novel of the same name). Faulkner was even encouraged to write his first novel by Sherwood Anderson, the journalist who first dubbed Franklin County, Va., during Prohibition, the "wettest county in the world," a distinction that served as the original title of Hillcoat's film, before a last-minute change.
If Faulkner were alive to see it, he'd be damn proud of the movie now titled Lawless, a brutally bloody, immaculately structured historical and familial tale with unshakable imagery: jalopies and Tommy guns, apocalyptic dust clouds, snow-flecked meadows and moss-draped hideouts. Lawless follows the lives and illegal moonshine business of three brothers – stoic, grunting Forrest (Tom Hardy), dirty-work bumpkin Howard (Jason Clarke) and the boyish and physically slight youngest, Jack (Shia LaBeouf), who narrates the story as his older self, much as he did in the source novel written by Jack's real-life grandson, author Matt Bondurant.
A mostly self-perpetuated local legend holds that the brothers are immortal, un-killable. As the big-city battles between moonshine-peddling gangsters and the Feds trying to stop them spills into hard-bitten rural Franklin County, the legend is quickly put to the test. One of those gangsters, Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), wisely concerned with the source of his supply, strikes an uneasy accord with the Bondurants. Ambitious clean-freak Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), meanwhile, declares war on Forrest, Howard and Jack from the moment he arrives.
By setting up the war theater early on, screenwriter (and Bad Seeds singer) Nick Cave, whose previous screenplay, 2005's The Proposition, was also directed by Hillcoat, allows the dread to marinate all the way until the explosive conclusion, so that every action, every sliced throat or shaken hand, is easily classifiable as either respite or escalation.
Predictably, the women of Lawless comprise the majority of the former. Jessica Chastain's Maggie falls for Forrest in spite of herself and saves his life at least once. Mia Wasikowska also pops up as the daughter of an orthodox farmer who can't resist Jack's fresh-faced brand of danger.
But this is a story of brothers, and Hardy and LaBeouf step up to the challenge. When Jack, along with his disabled friend, Cricket, risks certain death by attempting to sell off the family's entire inventory in an effort to prove himself to Forrest, Hardy makes it as difficult as it should be to upstage a man with stitches across the entirety of his neck.
With its bleak undertones, wry interactions and Bonnie and Clyde-worthy shoot-'em-up climax, Lawless is everything that a film haunted by the likes of Faulkner and McCarthy should be: a Southern Gothic masterpiece that treats life and death more like a functional condition than a physical phenomenon. It's breathtaking.
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