Now playing at Scotiabank
Prohibition movies are usually set in the speakeasies of Chicago and New York, with natty gangsters unloading tommy guns in city streets. Refreshing then, to go to the source of all that violence, where fires from illegal stills dot the hillside as they churn out ’shine for the big cities.
It’s 1931 in Franklin County, Virginia, “the wettest county in the south.” The law and the moonshiners get along just fine, so long as everybody gets their cut. The Bondurant brothers are ensconced in this world, making impressively pure moonshine for the locals.
When we first meet Jack, he is too gentle to pull the trigger on a hog. It’s clear from then on that he’s not cut out for this life, one of hardship and brutality, when he’d much rather be wearing a camel coat out on the town or sitting at home reading, though there’s little evidence he can.
Jack (grown up now, and played by Shia LaBoeuf) is nothing like his brothers. Forrest (Tom Hardy) survived Spanish flu while their parents perished; Howard (Jason Clarke) was the only man in his battalion to return from the Great War. That one of the Bondurant brothers saw the outside of Franklin County is a wonder; that he came back is a miracle.
But the town can’t exist in a vacuum forever. First to arrive is Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain), femme fatale. “The city can grind a girl down,” is her only explanation for wandering into such a remote place. Her blood-red fingernails are incongruous in a mountain town of sepia- and tobacco-coloured clothes and people.
Next on the scene is Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), a glamourous gangster. Knowing Jack’s gentle nature, his big brothers won’t let him help much with the business. He’s their “house dog,” left to sweep up at the gas station-café from where they run things. So it’s only natural that Jack emulates Floyd, right down to wearing the same duds once the money starts coming in, useless clothes for courting a minister’s daughter (Mia Wasikowska).
On the heels of one threat comes another: Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) is sent in to take an axe to all the stills but is happy to take a sizable cut instead. Forrest is the only one who won’t play. Charlie is alien to the dusty people in Franklin: he “smells funny” and wears dapper clothes for dirty work. There is menace in the precision of Charlie’s wide part, and the gloves he wears while beating victims half to death.
Hardy, in between mumbles and meaningful looks, gets the film’s best lines: “It is not the violence that sets man apart: it is the distance he is prepared to go.” LaBoeuf more than holds his own among the top-notch cast assembled by director John Hillcoat. Musician-writer Nick Cave and Hillcoat have exploited fraternal relationships before, in the equally bloody The Proposition (also starring Guy Pearce).
If blood ties rule all, more could be seen of the brothers together, even if—as is the case between Forrest and Howard they communicate wordlessly. But elsewhere Lawless is undeniably authentic, right down to the birth of NASCAR and the creeping kudzu.