Lawless begins with the shooting death of a pig, a scene that perfectly encapsulates the film’s tone: cruel and strange. The shooting is free of context aside from one child spurring another on to pull the trigger while the pig writhes in its pen, sensing danger in the air. The film never returns to the children, showing them instead as men who’ve committed to an unrepentant violence they spent their childhoods teasing, but that act hangs over the movie—a tale of captive pigs and the impetuous children who seek to slay them.
The kids grow up to be the Bondurant brothers, played by Jason Clarke, Tom Hardy and Shia LaBeouf. Mr. LaBeouf’s character, Jack Bondurant, is a dopey innocent, fetishizing the deeds of crime kingpin Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman). Jack sees crime activity as some sort of lark—he sneaks bullet casings from the scene of one of Banner’s killings—whereas his brother Forrest (Mr. Hardy) sees it as a grim necessity. Forrest, in turn, is seen as “immortal” in his small town, and not just because his brass knuckles assist him in savage, gruesome pummelings. With his glum growl of resignation after each beating of a would-be killer, he makes clear that there’s no childlike pleasure here. He’s simply choosing not to die. This performance by Mr. Hardy is the best the actor has turned in yet: the Brit, whose physical transformations over the past few years have been misconstrued as acting, is here a solid wall of flesh, but with the taciturn grimness to match.
The brothers make their name through more than just pugilism: they run moonshine in a Virginia county that’s said to be “the wettest in the world.” The encroachment of law enforcement near the start of the film hardly holds them back, but it does give them a new evil to contend with. Where Forrest sees killing as part of the job—something to be endured—the new-in-town Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) craves it. Where Forrest is a simple country gent in raggedy togs, Charlie is a preening peacock in shades of black, with slicked coal-black hair and shaved eyebrows. He’s a great villain for a film that spins the conventional G-men-versus-outlaws tale into an exploration of the oddity of American history, the manner in which our provincialism and our peculiarities define our story as a nation and as an often-ragged assemblage of communities.
As a tale of criminals facing down law enforcement, Lawless resembles Prohibition movies like The Untouchables far less than it does something like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Like the ambiguous and haunting Assassination, Lawless spins an archetypal story of American history in new directions, both morally and aesthetically. Morally, the film takes a strong stand on the side of the bootleggers, entrepreneurial types trying to make their way in an environment where law enforcement is a greater threat than even one’s rival moonshiner. (Mr. LaBeouf’s romanticization of a life in crime is played, before a final rebuke, for laughs—somewhere along the way he fills a car’s gas tank with moonshine to make it run.) The locals in this film stand together in quiet awe of Floyd Banner and utter disdain for Charlie Rakes, the outsider whose very presence upsets the balance of the small town’s life. Lawless is a story of a specific upside-down time in America when the law of the land was far less important than tribal custom. But perhaps it isn’t that specific—after all, director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave are Australian, and recent American politics have shown the deep resentment that communities harbor when faced with the perceived incursion of the state.
Aesthetically, the film is beautiful, and not merely for the conventional shots of Appalachia that appear at the beginning. (Mr. Hillcoat has improved greatly as a director since the turgid, poorly paced The Road, but he still loves an establishing shot.) Lawless’s fascination comes from the cartoonishness its characters assume in order to sell their roles. Rakes is some sort of dark raven, first seen leaning against a black limousine, with an accent residing somewhere between Chicago and Austria. Mr. Oldman is first seen clutching a gun as lightly as he would an umbrella, then bracing it against himself with both arms, and then raising it high above his car as he speeds away. Between that and his languorously smoked cigarettes, he’s more appendage than man. Mr. LaBeouf’s childish mien—even at 26, he’s still not quite a man—makes him the most peculiar-looking bootlegger you’ve ever seen, and yet it works for the movie. (His adequate acting suits the movie slightly less.) And an injury that befalls Forrest midway through the film leaves him with scars out of an old Lon Chaney monster movie: graphic reminders of the toll that the incursion of state can place upon pastoral life.
The film’s ultimate merger of moral ambiguity and aesthetic vision comes in the form of Jessica Chastain, the prolific actress whose stunning looks have rarely been used to such good effect as here. Ms. Chastain—fair-skinned, red-headed, with the body of a studio-system starlet—plays a woman of dubious morality. She, too, has come to the country from the city, and she brings trouble, the bad reputation she’s been trying to escape catching up with her. She’s utterly compelling as a woman caught between a desired future that seems at best unlikely—one spent with Forrest, who is reduced to silence upon first seeing her—and a past that just keeps coming back. The county can neither tolerate Chicago law enforcement nor Chicago loose women—it’s a closed system. Ms. Chastain’s character, Maggie, who pulls a knife on an assailant and quietly manipulates an unemotional Forrest into loving her, would be the femme fatale of a film noir, the dangerous woman with a heart of gold.
In a film like this, though, Maggie, the girl with the dark past and the half-burnt cigarette and the bright-red nails, cannot be allowed to have motives less than pure. Nor, for that matter, can the community fail to band together. Lawless’s locals represent an optimistic story about the best of America in the face of grinding opposition and violent conflagration; whether that story is true or false is up for debate, but if the movie’s denouement has a wish-fulfillment quality, the tacked-on coda rots out the teeth with sweetness. A film that delved into Prohibition ends with Morning in America. The pig has been forgotten, though certain characters are penned up very comfortably.
It’s of little matter. For all the corruption of Jack’s innocence throughout the film, the restoration of said innocence seems a fitting enough conclusion. Whether or not one believes the story to be credible, its implicit, perhaps unintended moral—that certain lessons need to be learned over and over, even when it seems you’ve escaped the cruelty of your past—is certainly one that bears telling.