“Lawless” – Review by Laurie Coker

Lawless Review

by Laurie Coker

Ironically, in part, because of movies, students (perhaps even people in general) read far less. I say ironically, because recently I had the opportunity to speak, on the red carpet, to an author whose first novel, The Wettest County in the World, has been made into a star-studded film called Lawless — starring Tom Hardy, Shia Labouf, Guy Pierce and Jessica Chastain. Matt Bondurant, who currently teaches at UT Dallas, writes about his family’s sorted history as bootleggers in Franklin County, Virginia. And when I ask him to offer one piece of advice to my reluctant writers, he said simply “read” and he added that to be a successful writer, “you need to be a reader first.” Bravo – these are sage words from a man whose book plays out in a character rich, sometimes shocking tale of lawlessness during prohibition. While I found the overall experience entertaining and the cast nearly perfect, some parts of director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave’s story play out listlessly.

During pre-film interviews, while waiting my turn, I overheard Bondurant tell a reporter he had nothing to do with Cave’s screenplay, other than to have provided the source material, of which I’ve only read the prelude. I found this a bit disappointing from an author’s perspective, but no one asked him why. Hillcoat’s film comes for the most part from the viewpoint of Jack Bondurant (Labeouf), Matt Bondurant’s grandfather, and his relationship with his two older brothers, Forrest (Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clark) and the family’s bootlegging business. Hillcoat does an impressive job setting the dark tone of his film and still manages to provide moments of humor and frankly, humanness. Bondurant’s rich characters make this film worth watching.

Lawless and Hillcoat are lucky to have this cast. Hardy and Labeouf, in particular, drive this film, but in truth, they have gathered an exceptional group. Bondurant must be so pleased. As noted earlier, this cast pleases. In addition to powerful portrayals by Hardy (excellent as the hard-edged middle Bondurant brother), Labeouf, the youngest and naïve, and Clark, who simply nails his nearly always unhinged character Howard, Hillcoat lucks out with Pierce as a heartless, weirdo lawman out to stop, as any cost, the illegal dealings in Franklin County.  The ladies, Chastain and Mia Wasikowska, could use more screen time, but then the film really is about the boys.

Willie Nelson, who came to the red carpet, too, has a song associated with the film called Midnight Run, which he asked us to stay for, since it plays at the end of the closing credits, but before we could hear it during the screening I attended, a Q&A with the author began. I did listen at home. Prior to leaving to play a concert, after helping to introduce the film, Nelson warned that some parts of the film were “tough to watch” and “really realistic.” I couldn’t agree more. Hillcoat gets up close and personal with some beat downs and fight scenes, letting fists, weapons and blood flow freely. Problem is, Hillcoat cannot keep the pace up throughout his telling and parts bog down some. Bondurant’s family (as he paints them), however, thoroughly intrigue. The epitomize the word “character” – vivid, colorful, and ultimately tall-tale-esque in nature like Paul Bunyan the giant ax-wielding lumberjack.

Rightly rated R, Lawless earns a B- from me. I might not sit down a see it again soon, but I will recommend it, especially to those who enjoy period pieces and bootlegging gangsters. Hillcoat and crew capture the 1930s era well and his stars shine. I think I’ll recommend Bondurant’s book to my father, who enjoys a good read. I can’t wait to share Bondurant’s wisdom on writing well – the single and simple word “read.”

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