In the opening shot of Lawless, we see a man cut a pig’s throat open in graphic close-up. From there, the movie only gets more violent. Guy Pearce pistol whips Shia LeBeouf across the face for what feels like five minutes. Another character gets his throat cut from ear to ear, fumbles around on the ground for awhile, then spends the rest of the movie with Frankenstein stitches across his neck. Shovels are used for purposes other than digging. Burning tar is used in situations not related to roadwork. Knuckledusters, however, are used for their intended purpose (repeatedly), and they prove to be extraordinarily effective. The movie is rated 18A in Canada, and with very good cause.
Based on the non-fiction book The Wettest County in the World by Matt Boundarant, Lawless tells the story of three brothers—a wild alcoholic (Jason Clarke), a stoic, seemingly invincible strongman (Tom Hardy), and a cowardly, nervous eccentric (Shia LeBeouf)—who make a living bootlegging liquor in 1920s Virginia. Apart from the occasional encounter with a scraggly stick-up man, their business seems to be running fairly smoothly. But soon a corrupt, sadistic Chicago lawman (Guy Pearce) descends upon the town, making it far more difficult for them to pursue business as usual. It’s at this point that the movie stops resembling Boardwalk Empire, say, and starts resembling a UN war crimes report.
In their brutal 2005 Outback Western The Proposition, director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave set a new standard for gritty onscreen violence, outdoing Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven in one fell swoop. With Lawless, they may have even outdone The Proposition. Some will no doubt describe the violence as “excessive” and “gruesome” and they’d be right. But unlike most movies that earn those adjectives (the Saw series, Hostel, 300, etc), the violence here is depicted in a way that won’t have audiences applauding. Each act of violence is brief, ugly, and un-choreographed. More importantly, the violence is shown to leave devastating real-life consequences in its wake. Considering the levels of violence that modern day prohibition has given rise to in Mexico, this seems entirely appropriate.
But the movie isn’t just notable for the excessive violence. The performances are all first-rate (Guy Pearce should be a shoo-in for the best supporting actor Oscar), the production design is phenomenal, and the movie is stunning to look at. If there is a shortcoming, it’s the screenplay by Nick Cave, who doesn’t seem to take his career as a screenwriter quite as seriously as his careers as a musician and novelist. At the TIFF premier of The Proposition, Cave boasted that he had written the screenplay in just two weeks. Lawless feels like it was written in a week and a half. Many scenes have a rushed, “let’s get this out of the way quickly” quality, and the subplots involving the two love interests (an ex-burlesque dancer played by Jessica Chastain and a preacher’s daughter played by Mia Wasikoska) seem particularly cursory. The result is a movie that surpasses The Proposition only in terms of violence, not quality.