Lawless (film)

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Lawless film poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by John Hillcoat
Produced by
Screenplay by Nick Cave
Based on The Wettest County in the World 
by Matt Bondurant
Music by
Cinematography Benoît Delhomme
Edited by Dylan Tichenor
Distributed by The Weinstein Company
FilmNation Entertainment
Release dates
  • May 19, 2012 (2012-05-19) (Cannes)
  • August 29, 2012 (2012-08-29)[1]
Running time
115 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $26 million
Box office $53,676,580[2]

Lawless is a 2012 American crime drama film directed by John Hillcoat. The screenplay by Australian singer-screenwriter Nick Cave is based on Matt Bondurant's historical novel The Wettest County in the World (2008). The film stars Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, and Guy Pearce.

The film is about the violent conflict between three bootlegging brothers–Forrest (Hardy), Howard (Clarke), and Jack Bondurant (LaBeouf)–and the ruthless Deputy Charley Rakes (Pearce) and his men, who try to shut down the brothers' Prohibition-era moonshine business after Forrest refuses to pay the cops off. The film was in development for about three years before being produced. It screened at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival and was theatrically released on August 29, 2012.


In 1931, the Bondurant brothers—Forrest, Howard and Jack—are running a successful moonshine business in Franklin County, in the Virginia Piedmont region. After selling several crates of moonshine to an African-American wake-party, they are accosted and threatened by a group of men in an attempt to rob them but Forrest effortlessly knocks the leader of the group to the ground with a single punch with a knuckle-duster, leaving the man lying on the ground semi-conscious and spitting out bits of teeth and blood. They use their gas station and restaurant as a front for their illegal activities, and their friend Cricket Pate assists them in their endeavors. One day, Jack witnesses mobster Floyd Banner shooting a competitor, and Jack and Floyd exchange looks.

Jack returns to the gas station, where Forrest hires Maggie Beauford, a dancer from Chicago, to be their new waitress. Shortly afterward, the gas station is visited by newly arrived Special Deputy Charley Rakes, accompanied by the Virginia Commonwealth Attorney Mason Wardell, the sheriff, and the sheriff's deputy. Charley tells Forrest that he wants a cut of all profit made by the county's bootleggers. Forrest refuses and threatens to kill Rakes if he returns. Forrest later meets with the other bootleggers and convinces them to stand up to Rakes as well, though they eventually give in to the deputy's intimidation.

Meanwhile, Jack meets Bertha Minnix, daughter of the local Brethren preacher. He attends their church drunk and makes a fool of himself, causing Bertha's father to forbid her from seeing him, but this makes her more interested in Jack. When Jack later finds Rakes raiding Cricket's house in search of his distillation equipment, liquor, and cash, the deputy brutally beats Jack to send a message to his brothers and other bootleggers. Forrest tells Jack that he needs to learn how to fight for himself. Forrest and Howard arrange to meet with potential "clients" from Chicago, but Howard gets drunk with a friend and misses the appointment. When the two mobsters harass Maggie, Forrest and Cricket beat them up. Later, after Cricket leaves, the men return, slash Forrest's throat, and rape Maggie.

While Forrest recovers at a hospital, Jack decides to travel across the county line with Cricket to sell their remaining liquor. There, they are double-crossed by the mobsters, who intend to execute them. They are rescued by Floyd Banner, who recognizes the Bondurant name, due to their courageous stand against Rakes. Banner already knows of the attack on Forrest and the identities of his two assailants; he gives Jack their address and advises him that the pair are working for Rakes.

Forrest and Howard later find, torture, and kill the men, both in retaliation and to send a message to Rakes, by leaving one of the men's scrotum and testicles inside a jar of moonshine outside Rakes' hotel room door as a message. Banner becomes a regular client of the brothers', who move their distillation equipment to the woods and earn great profits. Jack continues to court Bertha. Maggie initially decides to leave, but Forrest convinces her to stay, letting her use a spare room. They soon begin a romantic relationship. Eventually Jack decides to show Bertha the still, but they are followed and ambushed by Rakes and his men. Howard and Jack flee from Rakes' men with Bertha and Cricket. Rakes later captures and murders Cricket.

After Cricket's funeral, the sheriff of Franklin County visits the Bondurants to warn them that Rakes and his men are blockading the bridge out of the town, and Wardell has called in ATU agents to shut down the moonshine business. Jack takes off in Cricket's old car to confront Rakes. Howard alerts Forrest of this and persuades him to get in the car and follow him to provide back up for Jack, though Maggie tries to dissuade him, saying she found him when wounded and took him to the hospital. Forrest realizes then that she was also attacked that night, though Maggie attempts to deny it. On arrival Jack faces the blockade and is shot by Rakes, once Howard and Forrest's attempted rescue results in their being shot during a firefight. The hillbilly bootleggers appear en masse and scare Rakes' men into siding against him. Rakes shoots Forrest several times before being shot in the leg by one of his own men and attempts to escape. Jack and Howard confront Rakes, Jack shoots him in the chest, and Howard fatally stabs him in the back, avenging Cricket's death.

With Rakes and his men dead, the Bondurants work legitimate jobs and retire from bootlegging, after Prohibition ends. Within a year of the war with Rakes, Jack has married Bertha and started a family, Forrest has married Maggie, and Howard has married a local woman. During a reunion at Jack's house, Forrest drunkenly walks to a frozen lake, does a little dance, and falls into the freezing water. Though he gets back up, Jack tells the audience that Forrest later dies of pneumonia.


From left: Pearce, DeHaan, Wasikowska, Clarke, Cave, Hillcoat, Hardy, Chastain, and LaBeouf at the film's 2012 Cannes Film Festival screening


Writer Matt Bondurant wrote the historical novel The Wettest County in the World (2008), based on the Prohibition-era bootlegging activities of his grandfather Jack Bondurant and his grand-uncles Forrest and Howard. Producers Douglas Wick and Lucy Fisher optioned the book in 2008 and sent it to director John Hillcoat.[3] Hillcoat later commented,

"[Bootlegging] sort of drew [the Bondurants] into this crazy kind of world of corruption and lawlessness ironically, but then mostly they survived, they got through it all and actually went on to have businesses and children. And traditionally the gangster film teaches us that we've got to pay for our sins. Usually the gangster is shot down in a blaze of glory and doesn't get up again."[4]

Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave, who had worked together on the Western film The Proposition (2005), were attracted to the story by the success of the Bondurants. Hillcoat also said, "we also loved the idea that it sort of touched on the whole immortality that a lot of these guys start to feel when they do survive so many strange experiences."[4]

The first actor to be cast was Shia LaBeouf as Jack, the youngest Bondurant brother. James Franco was attached to play Howard and Ryan Gosling was attached to play Forrest; Amy Adams and Scarlett Johansson were also attached to the project.[3] Originally titled The Wettest County in The World like the book, the film's title was changed to The Promised Land.[5][6] Although Hillcoat intended to begin shooting in February 2010,[7] in January the project was reported to have fallen apart due to financing problems.[6] Only LaBeouf remained with the project. He said that after he saw Bronson (2008), "I went home and wrote Tom [Hardy] a letter saying I was a fan. He sent me a script, and I sent him Lawless. He called me back and said, 'This is fucking amazing.'"[3] Cinematographer Benoît Delhomme recommended Jessica Chastain to Hillcoat. Chastain said, "I am a big fan of The Proposition. I hadn't even read the script, but I told [Hillcoat], 'If you cast me, I'll do it.' I approach every role in terms of: 'Have I done this before? Is it something I'm repeating?' Lawless offered a new opportunity."[3]

By December 2010, Hardy and Chastain were reported to have joined the project.[8][9] It was then being financed by Michael Benaroya of Benaroya Pictures and Megan Ellison of Annapurna Pictures.[9] Jason Clarke and Dane DeHaan were cast in January 2011.[10][11] Guy Pearce, Gary Oldman, and Mia Wasikowska joined the cast in February 2011.[12]

According to Cave, "a lot of the truly brutal stuff did not make it through into the film. In the book, you get lulled by the beautiful lyricism of the writing, then suddenly you are slapped in the face by a graphic description of a killing. I tried to be true to that as much as I could."[13] He also said the filmmakers "tried to stay as true to the original story as possible", adding "we kind of changed aspects of the personality and temperament of Rakes to get [Pearce] involved."[14] Before Pearce's casting, "Rakes, the character Rakes, was very much like the character in the book. He was a nasty country cop. We made him a city cop, gave him his disturbed sexuality and all the rest of it," Cave said.[15] Pearce created the hairstyle worn by Rakes in the film.[15]

Lawless was filmed early 2011 in various locations near Atlanta, Georgia, including Newnan, Grantville, Haralson, LaGrange, Carroll County's McIntosh Park, and the Red Oak Creek Covered Bridge near Gay.[16][17][18] The cast lived in apartments in Peachtree City for three months during production,[19] and Hillcoat screened dailies for the cast every weekend.[20] Hillcoat and Delhomme consulted with cinematographers Roger Deakins and Harris Savides on digital cinematography. They chose to use the Arri Alexa digital camera system for Lawless, and Delhomme always used two cameras during filming.[20]

In March 2011, Momentum Pictures and its parent company Alliance Films acquired the U.K. and Canadian distribution rights.[21] In May 2011, the Weinstein Company bought the U.S. distribution rights, with plans for a wide release.[22] In March 2012, the title was changed to Lawless.[23]

Cave scored the film with Warren Ellis.[24] Cave said

What we didn't want to do is do an Americana soundtrack in the sense that we didn't want to do the kind of top-shelf. [...] We wanted to make this music ourselves. And what I mean by "ourselves" is we actually play it—me and Warren and a couple of musicians that we know, even though we don't know anything about bluegrass music or our bluegrass chops are pretty limited. And in that way we could get something that was very raw and brutal and punky, and that's what we were really aiming at rather than doing something that was more respectful of the genre. We were determined to take these songs and do them in our own way.[14]


Lawless screened In Competition at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival on May 19 and received a nearly 10-minute standing ovation.[25] The film was theatrically released in the U.S. on Wednesday, August 29, 2012, as The Weinstein Company hoped that good word of mouth would be built up for the upcoming Labor Day weekend.[26] Audiences polled by the market research firm CinemaScore gave Lawless a B+ grade on average.[26]


Critical response[edit]

Reviews of Lawless have been mostly positive. Rotten Tomatoes shows a "fresh" approval rating of 67% based on reviews from 201 critics, with the critical consensus "Grim, bloody, and utterly flawed, Lawless doesn't quite achieve the epic status it strains for, but it's too beautifully filmed and powerfully acted to dismiss," and reports a rating average of 6.5 out of 10.[27] At Metacritic, which assigns a weighted average score out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, the film received an average score of 58 based on 38 reviews.[28]


David Rooney of The Hollywood Reporter wrote: "If Lawless doesn't achieve the mythic dimensions of the truly great outlaw and gangster movies, it is a highly entertaining tale set in a vivid milieu, told with style and populated by a terrific ensemble. For those of us who are suckers for blood-soaked American crime sagas from that era, those merits will be plenty."[29] Mike D'Angelo of The A.V. Club gave the film a B− grade, calling it "a thoroughly familiar—but flavorful and rousing—shoot-'em-up set among Prohibition bootleggers. [...] If you've seen even a handful of Tommy-gun movies, however, everything that happens here will feel preordained".[30] Richard Corliss of Time magazine wrote: "much of the picture has a fossilized feeling; it could be a diorama under glass at the Museum of Nasty People. As a serious film worthy of the Cannes Competition, Lawless tries to be flawless; as a movie, it's often listless—lifeless."[31] Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian gave the film 2 stars out of 5, writing: "it's basically a smug, empty exercise in macho-sentimental violence in which we are apparently expected to root for the lovable good ol' boys, as they mumble, shoot, punch and stab. Our heroes manage to ensnare the affections of preposterously exquisite young women, and the final flurry of self-adoring nostalgia is borderline-nauseating."[32]

Theatrical release[edit]

Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly gave Lawless a B grade, writing: "Hardy's presence is compelling, but the film comes fully alive only when it turns bloody. At those moments, though, it has the kick of a mule."[33] Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle also praised Hardy's performance, and concluded, "The filmmakers detail a long-gone conflict from a long-lost era and end up showing how the dreams and longings that motivate Americans never really change."[34] Peter Travers of Rolling Stone gave the film 2.5 stars out of 4, writing: "Lawless is a solid outlaw adventure, but you can feel it straining for a greatness that stays out of reach. There's even a prologue and an epilogue, arty tropes signifying an attempt to make a Godfather-style epic out of these moonshine wars. Not happening."[35] Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times also gave the film 2.5 stars out of 4, writing:

"I can only admire this film's craftsmanship and acting, and regret its failure to rise above them. Its characters live by a barbaric code that countenances murder. They live or die in a relentless hail of gunfire. It's not so much that the movie is too long, as that too many people must be killed before it can end."[36]

Claudia Puig of USA Today gave the film 2 stars out of 4, writing: "The unflinching slicing and dicing is viscerally brutal, but without sufficient character development Lawless simply feels lifeless."[37] David Edelstein of New York magazine wrote: "The mixture of arthouse pacing and shocking gore seems to convince a lot of people that they’re seeing a mythic depiction of the outlaw way of existence. I saw a standard revenge picture played at half-speed."[38] Robert Abele of the Los Angeles Times felt that the film was clichéd, writing that it "turns the Virginia hills of the early 1930s into just another backdrop for a clockwork succession of perfunctorily filmed showdowns and shootouts."[39] A. O. Scott of The New York Times similarly wrote:

"There are too many action-movie clichés without enough dramatic purpose, and interesting themes and anecdotes are scattered around without being fully explored. This is weak and cloudy moonshine: it doesn't burn or intoxicate."[40]


Award Category Recipients and nominees Outcome
65th Cannes Film Festival[41][42] Palme d'Or John Hillcoat Nominated
Georgia Film Critics Association Best Original Song "Cosmonaut" by Nick Cave & Warren Ellis Nominated
Best Original Song "Fire in the Blood" by Nick Cave & Warren Ellis Nominated
Oglethorpe Award for Excellence in Georgia Cinema Nick Cave & John Hillcoat Nominated


A soundtrack for the film was released on August 28, 2012:[43]

No. Title Artist Length
1. "Fire and Brimstone"   The Bootleggers feat. Mark Lanegan 4:27
2. "Burnin' Hell"   The Bootleggers feat. Nick Cave 1:56
3. "Sure 'Nuff 'n Yes I Do"   Ralph Stanley 1:27
4. "Fire in the Blood"   The Bootleggers feat. Emmylou Harris 1:10
5. "White Light / White Heat"   The Bootleggers feat. Mark Lanegan 4:24
6. "Cosmonaut"   The Bootleggers feat. Emmylou Harris 3:42
7. "Fire in the Blood / Snake Song"   The Bootleggers feat. Emmylou Harris, Nick Cave, Ralph Stanley & Warren Ellis 4:25
8. "So You'll Aim toward the Sky"   The Bootleggers feat. Emmylou Harris 5:57
9. "Fire in the Blood"   The Bootleggers feat. Emmylou Harris 1:06
10. "Fire and Brimstone"   Ralph Stanley 2:12
11. "Sure 'Nuff 'n Yes I Do"   The Bootleggers feat. Mark Lanegan 2:35
12. "White Light / White Heat"   Ralph Stanley 1:38
13. "End Crawl"   Nick Cave & Warren Ellis 4:00
14. "Midnight Run"   Willie Nelson 2:37
Total length:


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External links[edit]