What is the wettest section in the U.S.A., the place where during prohibition, and since, the most illicit liquor has been made? The extreme wet spot, per number of people, isn't New York or Chicago...the spot that fairly dripped illicit liquor, and kept right on dripping it after prohibition ended...is Franklin County, Virginia. –Sherwood Anderson, "City Gangs Enslave Moonshine Mountaineers," –Liberty Magazine, 1935
Matt Bondurant's decision to build his second novel, 2008's The Wettest County in the World, around a trio of bootlegging brothers was a brilliant one. America's love affairs with both booze and rakish outlaws are self-evident; combine the two and throw in a healthy dose of hick culture, and you've got the makings of a hell of a story. That the brothers carry the author's surname is not some cheap literary devicethe historical Bondurants were in fact Prohibition-era moonshiners, central to the story that novelist Sherwood Anderson covered in 1935. And the youngest Bondurant, Jack, was Matt Bondurant's grandfather.
The depictions of unflinching violence and Southern amorality in the novel have drawn comparisons to the writing of both Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner, so tapping the gorgeously twisted mind of Australian musician/writer Nick Cave for the screenplay (give a listen, far from tender ears, to Cave's version of the folk-gangster classic "Stagger Lee" to hear how deftly he channels profanity and violence) seemed yet another inspired decision. But although Lawless has its share of high moments, Cave's adaptation of the novel, in tandem with an off-tone performance from lead actor Shia LaBeouf, ultimately consigns the movie to a level or two below greatness.
Director John Hillcoat and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme create a brooding Appalachian world that seems damp with danger and fetid with fear, in spite of the dusty roads crisscrossing the Virginia mountains (it could be argued that a fair bit of that humidity came from the buckets of blood spilled in the movie, enough to fill all the water trucks those roads needed).
The dynamic between the brothers is deeply engaging. There's the taciturn oldest, possessed of a deep capacity for brutality, the alpha middle brother, a man of immense physicality and words that drop out of his mouth like boulders, and the ambitious youngest brother, who transforms from the emotional baby to a force of nature on par with his brothers over the course of the film. And the acting performances behind the two older brothers are terrific, particularly that of Tom Hardy (Bane, in The Dark Knight Rises) as middle brother Forrest. Matt Bondurant created a legend of invincibility around this character in the book, and the vicious smolder behind Hardy's eyes goes a long way in making that most impossible of human traits seem attainable. Guy Pearce is superb as well, as the eyebrow-tweezed special deputy whose soul is as crooked as the part in his hair is straight.
LaBeouf seems most comfortable inhabiting roles of the cocksure underdog (The Transformers trilogy, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), so while the end result of his portrayal of the coming-of-age youngest brother rings true, he's simply not able to infuse the character with the early vulnerability required by Bondurant's novel and Cave's adaptation. And since his is the movie's central character, a flaw like that does a lot of damage.
That blame may well rest on Cave's head, for asking too much of his main character's development over the relatively finite narrative arc inherent to movie scripts, especially in comparison to source novels. Cave also stumbles a bit in the side stories, overusing a clichéd battered-bombshell city girl as the oldest brother's love interest, and underusing Gary Oldman's fine performance as a notorious city gangster who eventually aligns with the Bondurants.
Lawless will not disappoint those who hold an affinity for Depression-era historical fiction and intense fraternal relations, as long as they possess a healthy appetite for copious amounts of both moonshine and blood. But acting and script impurities keep the film from being the 200-proof white lightning the story suggests it could have been.
Lawless continues at the Carmike 12.