“Lawless” is based on a true story of three brothers who came of age during the Prohibition Era, in rural Virginia, and decided that moonshining would be a profitable way of making a living.
The problem was that a lot of other people saw a similar window of opportunity, and they were not people who played nice. The local toughs they could handle; they were pretty much in that category themselves. But when the sheriff sells out to the gangsters, and they bring in assassins to enforce their extortion, well, let’s just say things got pretty rough for a while.
The oldest brother, Forrest (Tom Hardy) is one of those strong, taciturn types who shows affection for his family by being their ferocious protector. The middle brother, Howard (Jason Clark) is also a man of few words and sudden fury, which leaves the youngest brother, Jack (Shia LaBeouf) to do all the smooth talking, both with speakeasy clients and the pretty little Mennonite girl down the way, Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), whose preacher-father disapproves heartily of all the Bondurant brothers, but Bertha seems flattered by the attentions of Jack, the shameless flatterer. The brothers also run a bar by the road, supplied by their homemade brew from the still hidden in the back forty somewhere. One day a pretty stranger, Maggie (Jessica Chastain) shows up and offers to be the bartender, waitress, and cook, and they can hardly resist her. It takes a while for Forrest to notice that she’s sweet on him; she pretty much has to be the one taking that naked first step. Literally.
The shootout at the still becomes inevitable when it’s clear that the Bondurant boys are not going to kowtow to the local thugs, whether they’re wearing badges or not. And we want to root for them, except, well, they’re not exactly paragons of virtue themselves. But there’s something about their family loyalty that appeals to us. That, and the pretty country scenery and the depiction of some lawless bubble in American cultural history, during those “Roaring Twenties” when Prohibition merely meant that people found other ways to supply themselves.
It’s tempting, standing in the Protestant Evangelical tradition, to trace and examine the roots of our own participation in this well-meaning but ill-fated moralistic venture. But as far as the movie “Lawless” is concerned, nobody seems very worried about morals. Just surviving. Which may mean needing to be “badder” than the bad guys.
“Lawless” features deliberate pacing interspersed with sudden violence, and decorated with a surprisingly sublime ending.

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Minister, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving, Texas