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The three Bondurant boys (Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke), along with their sultry new hire (Jessica Chastain), command the most lucrative bootlegging operation in Franklin County, Virginia. The locals consider them “indestructible.” But the law—in the form of a corrupt special deputy (Guy Pearce)—wants a cut of their action, at any cost. When youngest brother Jack (LaBeouf) gets a taste of power with a deadly gangster (Gary Oldman), the whole business blows sky high. Based on the astonishing true story, the Bondurant brotherhood is the stuff of legend. (From the official Anchor Bay synopsis)

Lawless appeared on the scene earlier this year as little more than a curiosity to most of the public. The film is lead by a cast of critical favourites on their way to superstardom, including Tom Hardy and Jessica Chastain, and a features a foundation from typically solid character performances, like Guy Pearce, Jason Clarke, and Gary Oldman. But most people were morbidly curious about the post-blockbuster career of Shia LaBeouf – though, apparently, not enough to make the film anything resembling a hit. Those of us that pay attention to filmmakers (like normal Americans pay attention to football players) Lawless was interesting because it was the second pairing of director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave, following The Proposition. The Proposition was a nearly brilliant deconstructionist western that did for the genre in the 2000s what Italian directors like Sergio Corbucci did for it in the ‘60s. It also featured career best (or at least near career best) performances from Guy Pearce and Danny Huston. Since then, Hillcoat made a handsome, well-acted, but ultimately disconnected adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (an arguably impossible task) while Cave wrote a sequel script to Gladiator that was never produced and spent most of the rest of his creative energy on his music.

By my measure, Hillcoat’s most obvious contemporaries are Andrew Dominik ( Chopper, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) and Nicolas Winding Refn ( Pusher, Bronson, Valhalla Rising, Drive). Hillcoat, who hails from Australia, Dominik, who hales from New Zealand, and Refn, who hails from Denmark, all bring a foreign slant to prototypically American stories (if only Refn had made a categorical western, this would be even easier). All three filmmakers are also obsessed with capturing the beauty of grit and graphic violence. Unfortunately, Hillcoat’s version of the manly-man-arthouse simply isn’t as potent as Dominik’s or Refn. It often appears like he’s trying too hard to find the Malick-esque beauty in his images and his ‘deliberate pacing’ feels distinctly slow for the sake of unearned meditation. Of course, I’ve heard similar complaints about Drive and The Assassination of Jesse James, so apparently, such readings are particularly subjective. One thing Hillcoat continues to do very well is present really painful violence that never feels gratuitous, no matter how gory. There’s genuinely haunting horror in the violent imagery and the shocks don’t come cheap, which sounds like faint praise, but is enough to sustain the film for long stretches of mismanaged pacing. The climatic shootout is also very well-handled. The sequence builds to a crescendo without turning to white noise. The emotional punch of this sequence is minimal, but the rhythm is perfect.

I have to admit that cramming two and a half seasons of Boardwalk Empire and Ken Burns’ PBS series in to the last year has left me a bit tired of the Prohibition era, but Lawless covers a less commonly explored aspect of the period, at least from a geographical standpoint. The problem here isn’t really overexposure, the problem is that Cave’s script prattles on without ever really registering anything significant. Events occur, but rarely have a lasting effect on future events, aside from moving certain characters out of the way. These events are also predictable enough that the average viewer will probably be able to guess who dies and in what order 20 minutes into the movie. It seems that this is supposed to be a character study above a plot-driven film, but Cave doesn’t seem to be too interested in developing his ensemble beyond the places we find them when the film begins. At a certain point, it becomes abundantly clear that Cave and Hillcoat are actually trying to ape Goodfellas on a shorter timeframe. Granted, Goodfellas is a pretty episodic movie, but Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi infuse their fluttering plot with comedy and drama, and they managed to avoid being too predictable, despite also being based on a true story.

The cast is certainly interesting. Hardy and Pearce take major effort to be ‘different,’ which really pays off, especially when Cave’s dialogue isn’t quite up to snuff. Hardy’s post- Dark Knight Rises mass is a bit distracting, but it works well with his goofy Southern-fried accent and ‘heavy’ status as a character. Pearce also has an amusing accent and adds an extra special dash of oddity to his appearance by shaving his eyebrows and slicking back his blackened hair. The audience immediately understands he’s a villain just by this ridiculous appearance and apparent fear of germs. Any scene featuring these weirdoes interacting is worth paying attention to. LeBeouf is well cast as the ‘runt of the litter’ and isn’t required to be the badass the rest of the male cast is. His career history colours the role a bit without tainting it and, at his best, he’s quite sweet. Oldman and Clarke are, sadly, mostly wasted, but do give the already busy ensemble some colour and flavour. The female cast, which is basically made up of Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska, doesn’t get much to do in this boys club movie, outside of being pretty, dressing nicely, unobtainable, and disappointed in their male counterparts. There’s also quite a bit of (off-screen) rape, considering the relative lack of personality and incidental qualities of the female characters.



Lawless was shot using Arri Alexa digital HD cameras and looks very, very nice in 1080p, 2.35:1 HD video. Hillcoat and cinematographer Benoît Delhomme use the format to the best of its abilities, which I find a bit surprising, following the grit of Proposition. This is a very clean and extremely crisp production that finds its grit in the production design, rather than the film stock. Detail levels are enormously sharp without any significant edge enhancement in highly textured close-ups and the broad strokes of deep-focus backdrops. The wide shots of the Virginia marshes and forests are the all-stars of this transfer. These images are teeming with complexities that would be flattened and pixilated to hell on a lesser transfer. Hillcoat and Delhomme take a bit of a ‘period shortcut’ in choosing a mostly de-saturated and brown for the daytime palette, but contrast this softer look well with a deep, dark nighttime palette made up mostly of golds and blues. The hues are controlled and solid throughout the film without any major banding effects or low-level noise (there’s a slight tinge of blocking on some of the softer, warm browns). The red and yellow pops are especially effective, as are the harsher black edges, with the exception of a mid-film sex scene where the darkness is presented much flatter (the exact same scene is much brighter during the special features). I do notice some minor shimmering effects, especially during the really expansive wide shots, but I’m pretty sure this is a limitation on the part of my set, not the disc.



Lawless is presented with an Anchor Bay typical DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. I’ve got no complaints, nor am I particularly blown away by anything here. There’s plenty of basic ambience throughout the film that gives the mix a decent spread, including busy saloons, cicada-infested outdoors, and perpetual storm clouds that never seem to break. There are plenty of standout sequences in terms of aural make-up, specifically shoot-outs and vehicular motion, but the sound design is more impressive when the mixers are playing with the volume of the ambience to underscore characters’ feelings. The effect is similar to a dynamic swell of music. Other highlights include the rumble of the Bondurant’s moonshine machine, glorious singing trapped within the walls of a small Baptist church (this scene plays with the volume and phase of the singing to signify LeBeouf’s drunken nausea), and Clarke’s animalistic, multi-channel wolf howl. The music is a mix of traditional era folk songs and a more modern, Southern-flavoured score – some of it written and most of it performed by screenwriter Nick Cave and long-time collaborator Warren Ellis (no relation to the writer) with a group of other musicians under the name The Bootleggers (including Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley, and Mark Lanegan on some tracks). The more driven, scary pieces of score give the LFE its best workout. The Bootleggers’ version of Velvet Underground’s ‘White Light/White Heat’ during the mid-film montage is especially tasty.



The extras begin with an audio commentary from director John Hillcoat and author Matt Bondurant. Hillcoat is sort of the moderator between the two and is sure to find spots for Bondurant to speak, even though one gets the impression he could’ve covered the runtime himself. In turn, Bondurant tends to cover the historical stuff, which also involves defending his story’s occasionally fictionalization of events, while Hillcoat covers the process of making the film, including technical and production process information. The historical stuff is, not surprisingly, the most interesting aspect of the track and it’s pretty clear Hillcoat, as tack leader, recognizes this fact and doesn’t push off into bland anecdotes of hiring actors or waste too much time thanking his production staff. Overall, this is a pretty full-bodied commentary with very little blank space or dead end discussions. The quality of the track doesn’t necessarily make me want to forgive the film’s obvious shortcomings, but it certainly helps. In a perfect world, however, Nick Cave would’ve also appeared on the track to discuss his take on the material, versus Bondurant’s.

Lawless: The True Story of the Wettest County in the World (21:30, HD) sounds like it might be a documentary on the true subject of the Bondurant Brothers, but it’s really just another behind-the-scenes EPK. There is a historical slant to set up the film for investors/audiences, but not nearly as much as I was hoping for. The bulk of the featurette covers casting, Hillcoat’s direction, Cave’s script, and the music. It includes interviews with Hillcoat, Cave, Bondurant, Jack Bondurant Jr., executive producer Danny Wolf, associate producer Rachael Shane, and actors LeBeouf, Pearce, Chastain, Hardy, and Wasikowska. Franklin County, Virginia: Then & Now (6:11, HD) gets a bit closer to the kind of historical documentary I crave. It covers the history of moonshining in the area  with ‘Spirits of Just Men’ author Charles D. Thompson Jr. and documentary director Roddy Moore. The Story of the Bondurant Family (12:40, HD) gives just one more taste of the research that went into Matt Bondurant’s book ‘The Wettest County in the World,’ including news clippings and historical photographs, which he discusses, sort of like a family slide-show. The extras end with six deleted/extended scenes (8:00, HD), ‘Midnight Run’ music video/trailers performed by Willie Nelson (1:40, HD), and trailers for other Anchor Bay releases.



Lawless is certainly a handsome and well-acted little gangster film, and it certainly benefits from moving its storyline away from the New York and Chicago areas, but it gets lost in its narcissistic filmmaking approach. With some cutting it would probably work as an arty B-film, but, as is, its surprisingly bland and predictable between bursts of stylish violence. This Blu-ray release looks absolutely gorgeous, sounds just fine, and features a solid collection of extras, including a particularly informative director and writer commentary. The only thing missing (besides a better movie) is an exhaustive documentary on the historical subject of Prohibition era bootlegging in Virginia.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.