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Lawless
Director: John Hillcoat
Screenplay: Nick Cave (based on the book The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant)
Stars: Shia LaBeouf (Jack Bondurant), Tom Hardy (Forrest Bondurant), Jason Clarke (Howard Bondurant), Guy Pearce (Charlie Rakes), Jessica Chastain (Maggie Beauford), Mia Wasikowska (Bertha Minnix), Dane DeHaan (Cricket Pate), Chris McGarry (Danny), Tim Tolin (Mason Wardell), Gary Oldman (Floyd Banner), Lew Temple (Deputy Henry Abshire), Marcus Hester (Deputy Jeff Richards), Bill Camp (Sheriff Hodges), Alex Van (Tizwell Minnix), Noah Taylor (Gummy Walsh)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2012
Country: U.S.
Lawless Blu-Ray
Lawless John Hillcoat’s Lawless is set in the boozy-sleazy backwoods of Virginia at the height of Prohibition, when the hillsides were lit at night by burning stills and the local police didn’t just look the other way, but actively participated in bootlegging. The pulp fictional screenplay by Nick Cave is based on a historical novel by Matt Bondurant titled The Wettest County in the World, which refers to the nick-name given to Franklin County due to the extraordinary amount of liquor production that went on there in spite of the Volstead Act. Bondurant’s book chronicles the exploits of his grandfather and great-uncles, who apparently became local legends by moonshining and standing up to nefarious authority figures. I haven’t read the book, but I would take the film’s historical veracity with a fine grain of salt.

The film’s heroes are the three Bondurant brothers, whose filling station and restaurant is really just a front for their successful moonshine operation. The brains and brawn of the group is Forrest (Tom Hardy), who is hulking and generally monosyllabic, speaking in drawling grunts that are both animalistic and oddly endearing. Howard (Jason Clarke), on the other hand, is just brawn, a mean, knuckle-bruising enforcer whose primary characteristic is his penchant for violence. The runt of the group is Jack (Shia LaBeouf), the youngest and physically weakest brother who drives the truck and absorbs insults from his tougher older siblings. He dreams of making it big on his own (his idol is a sharp-dressed local gangster played by Gary Oldman), and he conspires with Cricket (Dane DeHaan), his friend who has a genius for building machinery, but is even more physically limited than Jack due to his crippled leg. In the spirit of outlaw Westerns, a whiff of civilizing influence is present in the form of Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain), a Chicago girl with lipstick and nail polish who is seeking to escape big-city corruption by working at the Bondurants’ filling station—out of the frying pan, into the fire, as they say.

The moonshine business in Franklin County is disrupted by the arrival of Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a cadaverous dandy of a federal officer who plays muscle for a corrupt district attorney looking to take a big slice of the moonshine pie. Unlike the other local bootleggers, who are willing to cooperate out of fear, the Bondurants don’t take well to outsiders moving in on their territory and dictating their business practices, and they reject all offers, thus sparking a war between the moonshiners and the venomous federal agents. Both sides are crooked in their own way, but again drawing from the mythos of Westerns, the Bondurants are given a veneer of humanity because they stick to a code of honor and loyalty while Rakes and his thugs are just greedy and callous.

Hillcoat (The Road) has never been one to shy away from violence, and he layers Lawless with a heavy coating of sadism, bloodshed, and butchery, all of which he presents with just enough cartoonish excess to keep it from being truly unsettling. Lawless marks the second collaboration between Hillcoat and musician/screenwriter Nick Cave (the first was the Aussie western The Proposition, which also starred Guy Pearce). They both have a penchant for the grotesque, and Lawless is brimming with grit and grotesquerie, whether it be the castration of a Bondurant nemesis or the unnaturally wide part in Charlie Rakes’ hair. Everything in the film is pitched just slightly above where you expect it to be, and the narrative center is always shifting from character to character, which keeps us unsteady and nervous. You never know what’s going to come next, which is part of what makes the film so compulsively watchable. It offers an anti-romanticized history in which the violence is more brutal, the characters more deplorable, and the vengeance downright Biblical. It’s not quite a cartoon, but it comes close.

Lawless Blu-Ray + DVD + Digital Copy

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
Audio English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
SubtitlesEnglish, Spanish
Supplements
  • Audio commentary by director John Hillcoat and author Matt Bondurant
  • Deleted scenes
  • “The True Story of the Wettest County in the World” featurette
  • “Franklin County, VA: Then and Now” featurette
  • “The Story of the Bondurant Family” featurette
  • “Midnight Run” Willie Nelson music video
  • DistributorAnchor Bay Entertainment
    SRP$39.99
    Release DateNovember 27, 2012

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    Lawless looks generally fantastic in its 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer on a BD50 disc. The image is sharp, clear, and very well-defined, with an excellent level of detail that highlights the grit of the film’s depiction of backwoods moonshine production. Colors are beautifully rendered, although they are largely relegated to rustic and rural shades of brown and gray, although there are some striking instances of primary colors, which we immediately see in the opening sequence as the camera tracks over the red and orange treetops of a West Virginia forest during autumn. The scenes that take place at night and in dark interiors feature good shadow detail and inky blacks that avoid any crushing or graying. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel surround soundtrack does its job admirably. You may not always be able to discern exactly what Tom Hardy is mumbling in every scene, but otherwise dialogue is clear and sound effects are nicely delineated, although the shootouts don’t seem to take full advantage of the low end.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    Director John Hillcoat and author Matt Bondurant provide an enjoyable and informative screen-specific commentary that finds a nice balance between the technical and the historical. The disc also contains six deleted scenes and several featurettes: “The True Story of the Wettest County in the World” (26 min.), which, despite the title, is really a behind-the-scenes look at the film’s production that includes interviews with Hillcoat, Bondurant, screenwriter Nick Cave, several producers, and most of the cast; “Franklin County, VA: Then and Now” (6 min.), which interviews two historians about the production of moonshine in Franklin County during Prohibition; and “The Story of the Bondurant Family” (12 min.), in which Matt Bondurant goes through half a dozen photographs of his grandfather and grandmother and explains how they helped inspire his historical novel. Finally, the disc includes Willie Nelson’s “Midnight Run” music video.

    Overall Rating: (3)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Weinstein Company / Anchor Bay Entertainment


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