By Misa Shikuma
Based on Matt Bondurant’s historical novel “The Wettest County in the World,” the latest collaboration between director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave brings to life the story of a bootlegging family during the final years of the Prohibition era. Starring Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke as the Bondurant brothers, “Lawless” is an action-packed yet character-driven tale of gangsters, corruption and survival in the backcountry of Virginia.
“I had been looking for a gangster film to do, and couldn’t find any new take on it,” said Hillcoat, who first read the novel while in production on his 2009 film “The Road.”
The Bondurants’ compelling story was full of potential, and the director immediately sent it to Cave.
“The book is amazing,” agreed the writer. “It was really about the foot soldiers and worker bees that create the very beginning of the whole process of this wave of corruption that goes up and up and up into the cities and the glamour and into the pinstripe suits.”
And indeed, the film’s title is a reflection of those very rural outlaw enclaves, and especially the Bondurants, that dared to defy the corrupt lawmen who demanded protection money in order to continue the illicit whiskey trade. In the film, the brutal Agent Rakes (Guy Pearce) is sent by Chicago’s district attorney to bring the bootleggers in line with the law, but instead incites small-scale warfare within the community. Forrest Bondurant (Hardy), the eldest brother, leads the opposition.
For an American-set period piece, “Lawless” has a surprisingly international cast. So were those pesky Southern drawls difficult to master?
“I couldn’t tell you whether my accent in [Lawless] is truly genuine or authentic,” said Hardy, who hails from London. “Nor do I really give a shit.”
“What I care about is the character that comes across—whether you care about him, whether you identify with him, whether he can get away with doing some heinous stuff and still [have] you feel for him. [Forrest] cut somebody’s balls off! Would you want to sit in a room with someone who cut a man’s testicles off?”
“Not while he still had the testicles in his hand,” interjected Pearce with a straight face.
Like Hillcoat’s previous films, “Lawless” is graphic, bloody and violent—and not in a stylized, Quentin Tarantino sort of way. In the film, both the bootleggers and the law enforcers are utterly brutal and unapologetic. The director cited classics like “Bonnie & Clyde,” “Scarface” and “Goodfellas” as inspiration.
“Gangster films nowadays are more about pure action, not character,” he said. “So it was a special treat to have such rich [material].”
For the actors, however, bringing the violence to the screen isn’t always so easy.
“It’s kind of therapeutic in a way,” said Pearce, although he was quick to separate real life from the “safety of the film circus.”
“Violence in reality is truly fucking horrific,” Hardy agreed. “And truly pedestrian. And when it comes sometimes, it comes out of nowhere and it’s shocking.”
As antagonists, their characters share quite a few charged, and sometimes violent, interactions. Yet by their account, all of the tension disappeared when the cameras stopped rolling.
“We just chilled,” said Hardy. “We’d sit in the makeup trailer and chat and play Angry Birds.”
“That’s how we connected to our [characters’] anger,” added Pearce. There you have it: Acting 101.
Mia Wasikowska and Dane DeHaan, who have supporting roles in the film, had nothing but praise for their co-stars—even those with reputations for being difficult on set.
“Well they are big personalities,” said Wasikowska. “But they’re hard-working as well.”
“Shia really runs the set,” said DeHaan. “Because he’s so used to playing that leading man role.”
“But he comes prepared and ready to go, and he’s [always] cheering everyone on.”
When asked what contemporary audiences might glean from a historical drama like “Lawless,” both cast and crew gave similar answers.
“I feel like the core themes of that time are sort of always recycled and are seen under different names throughout history and even present day,” said Wasikowska, who plays the love interest of LaBeouf’s character.
Cave was slightly less diplomatic, likening Prohibition to “the great embarrassment of [current] American policy: the war on drugs.” Together, they represent “two great failures” in history.
So, uh, did anyone actually try any moonshine (the traditional name of the clear whiskey produced in the region)?
“Oh yeah!” said DeHaan enthusiastically. Since his character distills the liquor for the Bondurants, it was only natural for the actor to do his proper “research.”
“If you can get a blackberry or a peach moonshine, that’ll taste a little better,” he advised. “But if it’s just straight moonshine, that pretty much tastes like rubbing alcohol. It’s strong—you don’t need much of it.”