In the United States, Prohibition led to the greatest crime wave the country had ever known. Gangsters such as Al Capone got very rich and powerful off of the sales of moonshine, or bootleg liquor. But where was this contraband made? Much of it came from Franklin County, Virginia, where ninety nine out of a hundred residents were involved in bootlegging to some degree. The tradition of fermentation and making moonshine was one that was long practiced in the area. When alcohol was made illegal, and at the same time jobs were scarce, people turned to bootlegging not out of a desire to flaunt the law, but simply because it was something they were good at and could make a living doing.
'Lawless' focuses on real-life Franklin County residents the Bondurant brothers. Forrest (Tom Hardy) had a reputation for being indestructible, due to his ability to survive illness and attacks that would have felled other men. He runs the biggest moonshine production system in Franklin County. His younger brother, Jack (Shia LaBeouf), is a bit of a coward but wants to be more involved in the family business. At the same time, he's falling for the daughter of a local preacher, Bertha (Mia Wasikowska). All the money being made in the area attracted the attention of higher ups in the Virginia government, who send Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) down to convince Forrest to offer up a share of the profits. Forrest threatens to kill Rakes, leading to a blood feud that doesn't end until people end up dead.
Australian director John Hillcoat rose to prominence on the back of an existential outback western called 'The Proposition'. Starring Guy Pearce and written by rock and roll maverick Nick Cave, the film was one of the best of 2005, and put Hillcoat on the map. He followed this up with a brilliant and gritty adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's 'The Road'. For 'Lawless' he's reunited with Nick Cave, and once again creates a meticulous reproduction of a fascinating historical period. However, unlike 'The Proposition', 'Lawless' isn't a total success.
The film certainly has plenty going for it. Tom Hardy is one of the finest actors working today. If you haven't seen his turn in 'Bronson', then you're missing out on one of the great performances of the last few years. However, 'Lawless' isn't Hardy's film. He's in it less and less as the movie goes on, and his character feels increasingly disconnected from the main storyline. Jessica Chastain, one of the industry's most lauded new actresses is also in the film, but is even less a part of the story than Hardy is. In fact, their scenes together create what could be a whole other film entirely. It's an odd bit of scripting that probably stems from the fact that the movie is based on a true story, and Cave and Hillcoat didn't want to deviate too far from the real events.
The actual star of the film is Shia LaBeouf. If you've only seen him in big budget films from Michael Bay or Steven Spielberg, then you'll be quite surprised with his turn here. Gone is the manic boy-child, replaced by a sensitive but determined young man. It's the best performance I've ever seen him give, and the chemistry he has with Mia Wasikowska is palpable. I don't normally like Wasikowska, as I generally find her flat. However, here, the interplay she has with LeBeouf is spot on.
The other bright spot in the film is Guy Pearce as Charles Rake. You'll barely recognize Pearce, who has transformed himself physically and in his performance. He's clearly comfortable working with Hillcoat, and he's absolutely riveting while on the screen. Gary Oldman also appears in a small but important role. The whole production slavishly reproduces the Prohibition era, and you can tell the pains that the production designer took to ensure that not a single chair was out of place.
Perhaps it's this precise attention to detail that makes 'Lawless' feel listless. The movie cares so much about being authentic that it forgets to be riveting. There's one sequence, where the boys are riding out in their car, set to an anachronistic country cover of The Velvet Underground's "White Light/White Heat", and suddenly the film comes alive. By not worrying about whether or not the song was period appropriate, it gives the movie a sense of freedom that it doesn't have otherwise. For a brief moment, the whole thing feels electric, but it can't sustain that momentum.
The movie also feels small. While there are several shots of idyllic Virginia countryside, the action takes place in only a few select locations, and it loses its sense of scope in the process. This culminates in the climax, which is one of the smallest, least interesting shootouts I've seen in a long time. There is a denouement that adds a few nice character touches, but the film remains unfulfilling. 'Lawless' is an interesting true story, but not a great film.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Anchor Bay Entertainment offers 'Lawless' in a three-disc set, with one 50 GB Blu-ray, one DVD, and a digital copy on a third disc.
'Lawless' is Hillcoat's first attempt at shooting digital, and this AVC-encoded, 2.35:1 1080p transfer shows that his efforts were not in vain. The image is sharp but retains a film-like look. There's plenty of detail. There's a scene where Jack goes to Bertha's church, and during the footwashing ceremony, you can see a small blemish on the Mia Wasikowska's foot. That's how detailed this transfer is. Color reproduction and fleshtones are very accurate. You'll wince when you see the beating Jack takes at the hand of Rake. The bruises on his face look ripe enough to burst.
Contrast and shadow detail are both strong. There are several scenes that take place partially inside and partially outside, and both look perfectly rendered, without the whites blooming or the blacks dropping off. At times Hillcoat does oversaturate the image for artistic effect, pushing the contrast slightly too far, but those moments are few and far between. In all, a very strong transfer.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is very robust. The soundstage is broad and expansive, enveloping you with the sound. The period cars have a satisfying rattle to them, and the sloshing of the liquor in the jars will make you thirsty (or want to run to the bathroom). Dialogue is clear. Shia LaBeouf's mumbling won't be a problem here. The audio is well balanced, with neither the score nor the effects overpowering the other elements. There's plenty of dynamic range, with no distortion. Gunshots tend to sound kind of wimpy, although in other respects the LFE track isn't bad. There's plenty to love here in the DTS mix.
The disc has English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
'Lawless' has a great pedigree, but fails to come together into a cohesive whole. Still, Shia LeBeouf and Guy Pearce both turn in excellent performances, and the film meticulously recreates the Prohibition period. The audio and video on this Blu-ray are fantastic, and the special features are for the most part interesting and informative. 'Lawless' has its problems, but is still intriguing enough to warrant a viewing or two.