“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,