Movies: "Lawless" | Arts & Culture

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Movies: "Lawless"
Movies: "Lawless"


Based on a true story, “Lawless” is a cinematic jolt of white lightning that will have you awestruck by its visual and aural beauty and shocked by its pitiless depiction of violence.  It’s surely one of this year’s best movies.


Back in the Prohibition era of the 1920s, Franklin County, Virginia, was considered the “wettest county in the world,” its rolling hills lit by the countless fires of moonshine stills.  Among the most productive of those illegal distillers were the Bondurant brothers: Forrest, the taciturn but self-assured brains of the family (Tom Hardy, of “Inception” and “Black Hawk Down”), Howard, the most violently unpredictable of them (Jason Clarke, of “Public Enemies”) and young Jack (Shia LaBeouf, rising far above his “Tranformers” roles), at first considered too wet behind the ears for a full-fledged role in the family business.


The Bondurant boys have an easy-going relationship with the local sheriff (Bill Camp), but all that changes when a new lawman arrives in Franklin County.  Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce, of “Prometheus,” “The Hurt Locker” and “LA Confidential” among many others) is attired in bow tie and gloves, and likes to hurt people badly, starting with young Jack.  


There’s also a Chicago gangster named Floyd Banner (the great Gary Oldman), who comes close to killing Jack but winds up doing business with him.  And there’s Cricket (Dane DeHaan), Jack’s limping young friend who turns into a master mechanic, souping up their flivvers in a foreshadowing of the “Thunder Road” moonshiners who would later become the first generation of stock car racers.


There are a couple of women here as well.  Maggie (Jessica Chastain, of “The Help”) arrives in town and lands a job at the Bondurants’ filling station and cafe.  Bertha (the pale, beautiful Mia Wasikowska, of “Jane Eyre”) is a preacher’s daughter, who falls for Jack despite her stern father’s objection.  


When Rakes’ sadistic brand of law enforcement collides with Forrest’s legendary invincibility, you know there will be blood, particularly if you’ve seen screenwriter Nick Cave’s previous collaboration with director John Hillcoat, a tough Australian western titled “The Proposition.” (“Lawless” is based on novelist Matt Bondurant’s account of his family’s violent history in “The Wettest County in the World.”)


Cinematographer Benoit Delhomme (who also shot “The Proposition”) does a masterful job of scene-setting, with gorgeous images of the rural south’s nature, churches and covered bridges. (The movie was shot in Georgia.)  


But it’s the soundtrack you’ll really thrill to, the best use of grassroots American music in a movie since “O Brother, Where Art Thou.”  Nick Cave teamed up with Warren Ellis and fellow musician Mark Lanegan (of Queens of the Stone Age), along with the band The Bootleggers and legendary bluegrass singer Ralph Stanley to create a brilliant background sound to this film.  I almost fell out of my seat when I heard a bluegrass version of the Velvet Underground’s “White Light White Heat,” only to be performed again a capella by Ralph Stanley over the closing credits.


“Lawless” is one beautiful and very tough movie.  Its depictions of violence are as realistic and essential to its story as those of Sam Peckinpah in “The Wild Bunch,” so this may not be a movie for everyone.  It’s rated R for the violence and a nude scene with Jessica Chastain.  But if you’re prepared for a realistic visit to a raw slice of recent American history, don’t miss it.


I give it an A.