This movie review is going to be a bit different from how I normally write my reviews since I want to share my advance screening experience with everyone. A few months ago I joined the Philadelphia Film Society and one of the perks of being a member is getting to view movies before they hit theaters. About 3 weeks ago I had the chance to not only see Lawless, but meet Matt Bondurant, author of the book the movie is based upon AND who just so happens to be the grandson of Jack Bondurant (played by Shia LaBeouf). Talk about surreal, right?
The Book: The Wettest County in the World
Synopsis: Based on the true story of Matt Bondurant’s grandfather and two granduncles, The Wettest County in the World is a gripping tale of brotherhood, greed, and murder. The Bondurant Boys were a notorious gang of roughnecks and moonshiners who ran liquor through Franklin County, Virginia, during Prohibition and in the years after. Howard, the eldest brother, is an ox of a man besieged by the horrors he witnessed in the Great War; Forrest, the middle brother, is fierce, mythically indestructible, and the consummate businessman; and Jack, the youngest, has a taste for luxury and a dream to get out of Franklin. Driven and haunted, these men forge a business, fall in love, and struggle to stay afloat as they watch their family die, their father's business fail, and the world they know crumble beneath the Depression and drought.
White mule, white lightning, firewater, popskull, wild cat, stump whiskey, or rotgut—whatever you called it, Franklin County was awash in moonshine in the 1920s. When Sherwood Anderson, the journalist and author of Winesburg, Ohio, was covering a story there, he christened it the “wettest county in the world.” In the twilight of his career, Anderson finds himself driving along dusty red roads trying to find the Bondurant brothers, piece together the clues linking them to “The Great Franklin County Moonshine Conspiracy,” and break open the silence that shrouds Franklin County.
In vivid, muscular prose, Matt Bondurant brings these men—their dark deeds, their long silences, their deep desires—to life. His understanding of the passion, violence, and desperation at the center of this world is both heartbreaking and magnificent.
Matt Bondurant: Meeting the Author
Lawless, Matt Bondurant took the floor and talked about what inspired him to write about his grandfather and granduncles, how the book caught the attention of screenwriter and music composer Nick Cave and director John Hillcoat, and how honored he was to have such an amazing cast of actors bring his family's story to life.
Matt is known for doing extensive research before writing his books. But what I think is interesting is how The Wettest County in the World came about. While Matt knew that his grandfather and granduncles had been bootleggers, he never knew about their infamous exploits or their "dangerous reputation". It was only until his father, Andrew, found some old newspaper clippings about a shooting at the Maggodee Creek Bridge in 1930 that pieces of a story started coming together. When Matt's father asked grandpa Jack if the shooting really happened, his only answer was to raise his shirt to show a bullet hole. The living piece of history had nothing more to say and unfortunately they were never able to get his account of what happened out of him before his death in 2001 at the ripe age of 91. But it was enough to spark a fire of curiosity and this driving force is what helped Matt Bondurant manifest a clear picture of what kind of legends his grandfather Jack and granduncles Forrest and Howard truly were.
The Proposition, wanted to do something different with the gangster movie genre-- he wanted the audience to relate and root for the "Bondurant Boys" when in most gangster films we are happy to see those kinds of character punished for their crimes.
While J.K. Rawlings (Harry Potter series) and Stephanie Meyer (Twilight saga) are authors known to have been deeply involved in helping their books come to the big screen, not all authors are so lucky. Matt never dreamed he would be getting calls from the director, screenwriter, and even some of the actors. They took the material seriously and wanted to make sure they were adapting the story right. Matt even was invited to the set. I think one of the funniest stories is about Tom Hardy who plays Forrest Bondurant, one of Matt's granduncles. I told Matt I was not only blown away by Tom Hardy's performance, but I loved the "Mr. Rogers" sweaters and cardigans he wore in the film (I will come back to the sweater/cardigan thing later). Matt laughed and said it was actually Hardy's idea. Hardy is known to dig deep when getting into character and at one point he showed up on set with a beard and smoking a pipe. Matt said everyone was too intimidated to tell Hardy that the beard and pipe made him look a little too old for his character. Not Nick Cave! Apparently, Nick was the only one who had the guts to say, "Tom, you look like a f*cking idiot. You look like their grandfather not their brother! Get rid of the beard and pipe." Hardy took the advice and instead went with the cardigans and cigars.
My Review: LAWLESS
While I have not finished reading Matt Bondurant's The Wettest County in the World in which the movie is based upon, I have read enough to confirm 2 things. One, Lawless follows the book surprisingly well and two, if you think the blood and violence was added in by Hollywood, think again. Matt himself forgot all the violence in his book. When he saw the movie for the first time, he told a friend how shocked (in a good way) he was by all the blood and violence in which is friend replied, "Duh, your the one who wrote it!" But that is the beautiful difference between a book and a movie, right?
I absolutely have nothing negative to say about Lawless. Some critics have complained that while the acting was top notch, the story itself was derivative. Are there elements of the plot that we've seen in other films before? Yes. But does is straight up copy another movie? No. But let's get it straight. The point of Lawless was never to give us something we've completely never seen before. Come on, this is not the Matrix. But as I stated above, Hillcoat's vision was to give us a twist on the gangster genre, give us something a little less conventional. So while there were elements that felt familiar, there were also scenes that you just didn't expect; scenes that perhaps you expected to go one way, but ended up playing out completely different. I have a couple scenes in mind but I don't want to spoil anything.
In my opinion, Nick Cave did a great job with the script and the soundtrack. I liked Jack's bits of narration throughout the film. The movie was well paced-- my mind never wandered nor did I feel bored. So if some of you are hesitating to see Lawless because you're worried that the action or scenes of violence are far and wide between, you have nothing to worry about. Cave is more known as a song writer and composer then he is for writing scripts. So I had a feeling the soundtrack was going to be interesting. It was a breath of fresh air. Instead of going with the traditional sound of straight up blue grass, country music (remember this movie is part western, part gangsteresque), he somehow mixed in some new with some old.
Now to the outstanding cast of Lawless. You may disagree with everything I've said so far, but one thing that cannot be denied is the amazing acting in this film, even for those who have less screen time. I'll be the first to admit I am not a Shia LaBeouf fan. Walking into this movie, I thought I was going to have to just ignore him and pray the other actors would be able to carry him. While I still won't be the first person lined up to see his next movie, I have to give credit where credit is due: Shia LaBeouf can act. From his southern drawl to his convincing performance as a boy that still hasn't quite transitioned into manhood, I think he did a great job playing Jack Bondurant.
Jason Clarke who portrays the eldest brother in the Bondurant clan Howard, was a bit overshadowed by other performances, but I won't soon forget those eyes. They are eyes that have seen things that no man should ever have the burden of seeing and it's no surprise why he drowns himself in moonshine. The way Clarke was able to sometimes appear "tuned out" out was impressive.
Gary Oldman as gangster Floyd Banner was electrifying, but shorter then expected. It's one of those cases where Hollywood uses an actor's name to draw people into the film, but they aren't actually in the majority of it.
Jessica Chastain is a great actress so I wasn't surprised by her solid, strong female performance as Maggie. I loved how she could walk into a room and instantly remind the rough-around-the-edges Bondurant boys of their manners in the presence of a lady. The other lady in the movie, Mia Wasikowska, who plays Bertha (Jack's love interest) was as perfect as always. She is young but can hang with the heavyweights as she has proven in previous performances in Jane Eyre and Albert Nobbs.
If you are looking for a villain you will hate as much as the characters do in the film, then you will love Guy Pearce's spin on Special Deputy Rake. Pearce is probably one of the most underrated but brilliant actors around and I am glad that the part went to him since Rake as a character is quite interesting. He's from the city, wears perfume, appears to look the part of a gentlemen but we soon realize underneath the nice clothes, coifed hair, and girly smell, there's something not quite...right. Like the gloves he wears and the naked African American girl in his room that he has sitting on newspapers on top of his bed. Yeah...check it out, you will see what I mean.
I think the character that I least expected to connect with was Cricket and the credit has to go to Dane DeHaan. I kept thinking he was the younger version of Leonardo DeCaprio and I don't know why but his performance in Lawless reminded me of DeCaprio as Arnie in What's Eating Gilbert Grape. The physical likeness of the two is uncanny. I can't wait to see DeHaan evolve over time.
Okay, so I had to save the best for last and I am sure by now everyone is seeing cross-eyed by this long post. I promise to keep my praise of this next actor as short as possible since there are really no words that can fully describe his performance. You just need to see it. Tom Hardy was compelling as Forrest Bondurant, the middle brother and the head of the family. I read somewhere that the director John Hillcoat was "awestruck" by Hardy's performance. I think I was awestruck when I saw Hardy as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, but let me say this: I don't need any more proof, he is a phenomenal actor. Remember the comment I made earlier about loving the Mr. Roger's cardigans Hardy chose to wear in the movie? Any actor that can wear a Mr. Rogers' cardigan and remain sexy, masculine, and still be the baddest mother f*cker on screen is just amazing. Hardy always makes Forrest appear relaxed, yet intense. His mannerisms such as the way he walks, talks is a pleasure to watch. Forrest is the glue that keeps everything in his world together and I am not just talking about his importance as the businessman in the family. Forrest has to keep a watchful eye on his older brother Howard who can fly off the handle in a second, who can at times appear tuned out and sometimes wonder if it is all from the moonshine or from the horrors he saw at war. Then on the other end is young Jack, his baby brother that he knows isn't quite cut out for the lifestyle but knowing and trying to convince the youngest in the Bondurant family are two different beasts. I'm not saying Forrest couldn't have been played by another actor, but Tom Hardy brought something special to the character that could never be replicated.
I think John Hillcoat has succeeded in his goal. He has given us a western/gangster flick that feels familiar yet still maintains its freshness. If you're looking for a film with a solid story, great acting, with nicely paced bursts of violence, look no further. Lawless has arrived. But let us not give all the credit to Hollywood for there would be no movie without Matt Bondurant and his novelization of his grandfather and granduncle's legend sized escapades. I read somewhere that Matt Bondurant's one regret was that he never spent enough time with his grandfather as so often happens with young people. That maybe writing Wettest County in the World was his way to honor the memory of the man he knew and the man he wished he had had the time to get to know. Don't worry, Matt. Grandpa Jack would be proud.