As a Brit who’s never visited the USA, drunk a root beer or pitched a curveball, I have a deep fondness for Americana. Films soaked in the spirit of America, often warts-and-all are my go-to movies. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), Paris, Texas (1984) and even A Christmas Story (1983) have me lapping it up, so I was raring to go when Lawless (2012) hit DVD. My only issue was that it had been cast with nary a Yankee in sight; the Englishmen Tom Hardy and Gary Oldman and two Aussies (Guy Pearce and Jason Clarke) take on the lion’s share of the acting. Evidently, it appears that voice coaching has got a lot better these days. Pearce has always been able to put on a passable if non-specific American accent but the big surprise was Hardy, whose mumbling Virginia drawl was convincing enough that my good lady requested subtitles 20 minutes in.
Another fear was quickly allayed, too. The words ‘based on a true story’ never fail to make me shudder. Lawless is, indeed, based on a true story but it’s done well enough that the majority of scenarios are believable. You don’t ever get the feeling that the scriptwriters ave been playing fast and loose with the facts in order to tell a brighter tale. The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant is the book it’s adapted from, written by the grandson of one of the protagonists, and by all accounts it’s pretty close to the mark – something that makes the escapades and set pieces a little more chilling.
So, what’s it all about? It’s about bootlegging and a family whose business it is to see that the prohibition needn’t stop a healthy trade in booze. The Bondurant family (for it is they) live in an almost impossibly beautiful country setting in the hills of Virginia in the early 1930s. their trade in illegal liquor (moonshine) is well established and the ground rules as to which family sells to whom and where are firmly established. The local lawmen are, almost inevitably, embroiled in the trade and happily partake of the moonshine themselves. This piece of scene-setting is there to remind us that these sheriffs and deputies are for the most part members of the community and happy to sit back as long a all runs smoothly. All this bucolic pleasantry is soon abruptly shaken up by the arrival in town of a Special Deputy from the governor, Charles Rakes (Pearce). He isn’t there long before he starts to poke the wasps’ nest a little by gunning for the biggest family in the neigbourhood, the Bondurants. The flat refusal of Forrest Bondurant (Hardy) to bow down and pay the protection money begins something of a war of attrition between the two, leading to a spiral of violence and conflict. It was never going to end well.
While not a juggernaut of a movie, Lawless sets a fine pace and captures what is at least my idea of the pace of life, the countryside and attitude of the people of those times. The screenplay plays a big part in the atmospherics and a wonderful job was done by Nick Cave. Of course, you can’t have Nick Cave involved and not get treated to a few moody songs and tunes, so he obligingly provides a very competent soundtrack, including several songs written and/or sung by him and others. Watch out, too, for the goofiest version of White Light/White Heat you’ll ever hear over the end credits.
All in all a very watchable movie and an excellent cast – although if I had a small criticism, it’d be that there was not enough Gary Oldman for my liking.