Rewind, Review, and Re-Rate: ‘Lawless’: A True Bootlegging Tale From Prohibition Appalachia

By Mark Jackson
Mark Jackson
Mark Jackson
Film Critic
Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. Mark has 20 years' experience as a professional New York actor, classical theater training, and a BA in philosophy. He recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World,” and has a Rotten Tomatoes author page.
November 13, 2021 Updated: November 13, 2021

August 29. 2012 | R | 1h 56m

The first-ever use of the head-butt in a cinematic fight was in the 1975 Charles Bronson movie “Hard Times,” about bare-knuckle fighting in the Prohibition era. It was spectacularly unnerving in its barbarism. Almost 50 years later, a head-butt is still cringe-worthy, but also a little ho-hum.

In “Lawless,” a powerful portrayal of bootlegging in Prohibition era Virginia, the recurring act of violence is a brass-knuckle punch to the Adam’s apple. It ain’t pretty. The movie isn’t exactly pretty either, but it was an instant gangster classic.

three men in a truck in LAWLESS
(L–R) Howard (Jason Clarke), Forrest (Tom Hardy), and Jack (Shia LaBeouf) play the true-life outlaw Bondurant brothers, in the bootlegging drama “Lawless.” (Richard Foreman/The Weinstein Company)

True Story

“Lawless” is the more-or-less true tale of the legendary Bondurant brothers of Virginia, as recalled by their descendant, author Matt Bondurant, in his book “The Wettest County in the World.” Liquor’s against the law, but moonshine’s a-flowin’ in them thar lawless hills. The wooded hollows look like Halloween jack-o’-lanterns in the dusk with the orange glow of whiskey-still fires.

A forest and road in LAWLESS
The lawless hills and wooded hollows of Virginia bootleg country in “Lawless.” (Richard Foreman/The Weinstein Company)

It’s an outlaw tale about the three brothers’ stand against the local lawmen. Eldest brother Howard (Jason Clarke) is the wild child; middle son, Forrest (Tom Hardy), is a force of nature, as well as the wisest; and the youngest, Jack (Shia LaBeouf), is the sensitive runt of the litter with something to prove.

LAWLESS
(L–R) Howard Bondurant (Jason Clarke), Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf), and Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy), are violent outlaw brothers, in the bootlegging drama “Lawless.” (Richard Foreman/The Weinstein Company)

Jessica Chastain plays Maggie, a woman with a disreputable past from Chicago, looking for a simpler life in the country. She finds a fellow damaged soul in Forrest Bondurant, who carries the weight and thousand-yard-stare of having fought in the war.

Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) is a member of a conservative Christian sect called the Dunkards, who catches young Jack’s eye.

man talks to woman in car in LAWLESS
Shia LaBeouf and Mia Wasikowska star in the Southern drama “Lawless.” A bootlegging outfit is threatened by a new deputy, as well as other authorities seeking a cut of their profits. (Richard Foreman/The Weinstein Company)

Cricket (Dane DeHaan of “Chronicle”) is a frail backwoods Leonardo Da Vinci of the whiskey still. He’s also a virtuoso grease monkey who rebuilds and muscles-up Ford Model T engines to better outstrip the cops while carting moonshine freight. A well-known (by now) footnote to illegal liquor transporting in the Southern USA is that this is where the sport of stock car racing (now known as NASCAR) had its origin.

young man in front of autobody shop in LAWLESS
Cricket (Dane DeHaan), in “Lawless.” (Richard Foreman/The Weinstein Company)

Bringing up the rear is Gary Oldman as Floyd Banner, a classic fedora-and-tommy-gun-type urban gangster, whom the impressionable Jack strives to emulate.

Man in suit with cigar in LAWLESS
Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), in “Lawless.” (Richard Foreman/The Weinstein Company)

The landscapes and townships are bleak yet somehow nostalgic in their 1930s Americana. Nick Cave’s songs underscore the Scots-Irish blood-feud toughness of Appalachian hill folk like the Bondurants, while paying tribute to the influence of the blues in those parts.

The most powerful music, though, is found in the church gatherings of the pious, Amish-looking, zealous Dunkard sect. Their spare, droning choir consists mainly of searing yet paradoxically emotionless stark fifth chords, and underscores their fervent commitment to a razor’s-edge path of austerity, where a fall into the abyss of sin means certain retribution.

a crowded church interior in LAWLESS
The Amish-like, Christian Dunkard sect sing in church, in “Lawless.” (Richard Foreman/The Weinstein Company)

Even though the Bondurants do many bad things, we root for them because, firstly, there weren’t many opportunities for well-paid legitimate labor in Depression era Appalachia; and secondly, special agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) is such a fastidious, malicious, ultraviolent slicked-back creep that it’s not possible to like anything he does, even if it is legal.

three agents lie in wait for bootleggers in LAWLESS
Special agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce, center) out to apprehend illegal bootleggers, in “Lawless.” (Richard Foreman/The Weinstein Company)

The actors are all A-list, metaphorical, heavy-hitters. “Lawless” contains lots of literal heavy hitting as well. While there is nary a head-butt, this movie is guaranteed to hit you hard on many levels.

a shootout in LAWLESS
A gun-toting showdown between government agents and illegal bootleggers, with Shia LaBeouf, far right, in “Lawless.” (Richard Foreman/The Weinstein Company)

‘Lawless’
Director: John Hillcoat
Starring: Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Shia LaBeouf, Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Guy Pearce, Mia Wasikowska, Dane DeHaan
Running Time: 1 hour, 56 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Release Date: Aug. 29, 2012
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Mark Jackson
Film Critic
Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. Mark has 20 years' experience as a professional New York actor, classical theater training, and a BA in philosophy. He recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World,” and has a Rotten Tomatoes author page.