History in Films: Lawless


Lawless (2012)

I am drawn to the time period, 1880-1945. Mix in the eruptions and innovations with people struggling with their landscape and watch a dynamic story ensue. Who needs fiction when you hear about the incredulous stories of your grandparents? Inventions revved up time and a day sped forth into a year and another decade flew by.  After I read biographies, novels, or text books about people from this time, the message was clear: life was brief and unsympathetic. There was a lawlessness, a raw hunger in people. You can see this urgency in the characters of films and novels.

I revisited John Hillcoat’s historical film Lawless and was impressed with certain aspects of the film–the setting and story of the bootlegging brothers who reached for financial independence in Prohibition-era Virginia.  The true story comes from author Matt Bondurant’s novel The Wettest County in the World (2008) about his grandfather and two great-uncles as moonshine gangsters. The story spoke to me having lived only a short drive away from plot’s location, Franklin County, Virginia. I can attest these back-woods moonshiners existed (and still do) in pockets of Virginia today.  However, those that dislike violence might be put off with double barrel shotguns firing in all directions.The real reason you should watch the film is the acting by Jessica Chastain, Shia LaBeouf, Guy Pearce, and Tom Hardy. They make a great team and the film memorable.


Tom Hardy played the oldest brother, Forrest. He was larger than life in the county, a legend for beating back death when those around him perished. He embellished the attributes of my grandfather–chomping on a cigar, grunting more than talking; he was mean and tough. The character Forrest in Lawless was tough. How tough? Someone slit his throat from ear to ear and he took it like a man. While it seemed like an easy role to play–just slap a stony expression on your face for two hours–Tom Hardy brought to the surface a glow of tenderness. Unable to vocalize his affection for citified girl-on-the-run, Maggie Beauford, played by Jessica Chastain, his eyes and the way he grunted spoke volumes. Or maybe it was the way he used his brass knuckles that demanded respect from the rest of the community. Add to the film the solid acting performances by Gary Oldman and Mia Wasikowska and the awesome villain played by Guy Pearce. His role as the snobby, bureaucrat whose disdain for the mountain hicks was memorable due to the details. The gloves that kept his hands clean. The delight in himself while he ruthlessly wielded his power. His barely contained rage was downright evil. I was never so happy to see a villain get his comeuppance.

Lawless represented a historical setting of the late 20s, and I marveled throughout the film about the toughness of the characters. The violence depicted the hardness of the times. It’s not that the characters were models of morality and that I condone their lawlessness. The generation of my grandparents used their environment to help them carve out a living. They survived by making the best of their place in society. They followed their own laws to survive. I admire their survival instincts. I admire their toughness. The film tried to represent that element. It had its holes what with the romanization of the fight and the western-like feel of the show down. The guns missed their mark too many times for realism, but it was a film where the ensemble troupe outlasted the weaknesses of the film. I loved it.


26 thoughts on “History in Films: Lawless

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  1. Great read Cindy. I love this film as well. It is surprising (to me at least) that a lot of people do not like this film. It was in my top 5 the year it came out.

    1. It was violent, sure enough. But, it was tough back then and people did kill over alcohol. I loved the beauty of the mountains with the scrappy residents and the themes of loyalty and family. A mafia movie in the woods and it worked for me.

  2. Good review Cindy. I remember seeing this way back when and really liking it. Heck, I even thought Guy Pearce deserved an Oscar nomination for his work! That’s how much I liked it! Oscar-caliber, believe it or not.

    1. Hi Chris. Yes, no complaints by me! Pearce was wicked–what a contrast that perfect suit, the gloves, no hair out of place, ultra control surrounded by poverty stricken hill folk. Loved it.

  3. I’ve never seen or heard of this one, but your review has got me interested. It sounds like the kind of film Walter Hill would have directed in his heyday.
    I do think Matt Bondurant’s novel has a wonderful title. Why did they change it?

    1. Hi Paul, that’s a great question. The book title is perfect and ‘Lawless’ is lackluster, yes? It looks like director Hillcoat approached the project with the book title, but due to financial reasons, it was dropped. Later that year an independent studio picked it up, Annapurna Pictures and the title was changed to ‘Lawless’.

  4. I liked Lawless but my expectations may have been a tad too lofty. I felt slightly let down mainly because I thought it would be an unforgettable experience considering the time setting and the phenomenal cast (minus Shia).

    Still had a good time with it and it really holds up after a second viewing. Personally I think Guy Pearce stole the show!

    1. Welcome, Keith. Yes, Guy Pearce was unforgettable. I give more credit to Shia LaBeouf’s acting talent than you 😉 . He has an expressive face and I don’t mind him at all on the screen unlike a lot of people. The attention given to the historical climate and the amazing story made up the holes in the film. Thank you

      1. Glad to hear, it’s always a special time for me. Did you see my Easter post? It’s part of a blogathon but ended up being one of my most personal posts on the blog yet.

  5. Great review, CIndy. I completely agree that the setting in Lawless is fascinating (definitely the movie’s greatest strength) and I agree that most of the cast is terrific – especially Hardy, Chastain and Pierce. But this is one of the rare times wherein I think LaBeuof is in over his head. He doesn’t, for my mind anyway, capture the same gravitas and weightiness evident in the other performances. That combined with the plot holes you already mentioned made me like this considerably less than you.

    I certainly don’t hate it, though.

    1. Hi Josh, well, lots of people would agree with you regarding Shia. I will go ahead and disagree. He was the young brother, naive and sweet in comparison and his crush and tender courting with Mia W. ‘s character was charming. I thought he did fine. 😉

      1. Just so we’re clear . . . normally I really like Shia’s acting; I think his off-screen problems has made it hard to notice that he is an underrated actor. But I think he is one.

        It’s just this movie in which he didn’t do much for me, really. Glad you liked it more than me, though!

  6. Great post Cindy. I found plenty to enjoy in Lawless as well. It was little harshly criticised when it was released but I thought it was solid stuff. I particularly enjoyed Pearce.

    1. Hi Mark! Glad we agree. Sometimes I can’t figure out what the critics see or don’t see in a film. This was a group effort that worked for me. Pearce–it was easy to hate this villian!

  7. Ok so maybe I missed something but I was confused about one part: After forrest gets his neck slit, maggie (for some reason) drives back. She then walks inside and says “I have to tell you something” and proceeds to get ravaged (or possibly not since we only see a glimpse) by the men who hurt forrest. The proceeding scenes show her nervously smoking a cigarette and bruised up, leading us to believe she was either raped or abused by them. All of a sudden Forrest is safe in the hospital and later on Maggie tells him that she saved him and dragged him into her car and took him to the hospital and says she “wont do it again” and also says the men never did anything to her. I didn’t really understand this, it seemed like a plot hole.

    1. Hi Dan! Welcome. Yes, it’s a pivotal point in the plot and it is ambiguous. You are right. It was raining hard and Maggie returned to Forrest. She took him to the hospital, and then was raped by the thugs. How he managed to survive a neck slashing stretches the imagination, but after she was raped and didn’t tell Forrest, he invites her to stay for protection. Forrest doesn’t speak much, but he seemed to understand what happened to Maggie as well fall in love with her.

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