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 the Piedmont region of Virginia. The brothers use their gas station and restaurant as a front for their illegal manufacturing business with the assistance of Jack's disabled friend and engineer, Cricket. Jack witnesses infamous mobster Floyd Banner shoot dead a rival in broad daylight.
Jack returns to the gas station, where Forrest hires dancer Maggie as a waitress. Shortly afterward, the gas station is visited by newly arrived U.S. Marshal Charley Rakes, accompanied by the Virginia state's attorney Mason Wardell, the sheriff, and the sheriff's deputy. Rakes demands a cut of profits from all bootleggers within the county, including Forrest, who refuses and threatens to kill Rakes if he returns. Forrest implores his fellow bootleggers to unite against Rakes, but they refuse.
Meanwhile, Jack lusts after Bertha, daughter of the local Brethren preacher. He attends their church service drunk, embarrassing himself but piquing her interest. Jack walks in on a visit from Rakes to Cricket's house, and is beaten by him as a message to his brothers. That night, Forrest beats and throws out two customers who had been harassing and threatening Maggie. After Maggie resigns and leaves, Forrest is ambushed by the two men, who slit his throat. Maggie returns looking for Forrest but is beaten and raped by the men. She decides to keep the assault from Forrest.
While Forrest recovers at a hospital, Jack decides to cross the county line with Cricket to sell their remaining liquor. They too are ambushed by the mobsters, led by Banner, but are spared when Jack reveals he is a Bondurant, whom Banner admires for their stance against Rakes. Banner reveals to Jack the address of his brother's assailants, who were previous employees of his and currently work for Rakes.
Forrest and Howard later find, torture and kill the men and send one of their testicles to Rakes. Banner becomes a regular client of the brothers, who have expanded their operation with multiple large stills deep in the woods, increasing its profitability. Jack continues to court Bertha. Maggie decides to return to Chicago, but Forrest convinces her to stay and provides her with a spare room. They develop a romantic relationship. On a day trip, Jack decides to show Bertha the brothers' secret operation, but they are followed and ambushed by Rakes and his men. Howard, Jack, Cricket and Bertha all flee. The police take Bertha home but leave Cricket to Rakes, who murders him.
After Cricket's funeral, the sheriff of Franklin County warns the Bondurants that Rakes and his men are blockading the bridge out of town, with Wardell calling in Prohibition agents to shut down the county's moonshine businesses. Jack speeds off in Cricket's car to confront Rakes. Howard and Forrest quickly follow to provide backup for Jack, to Maggie's chagrin. She reveals she had delivered him to hospital after the attack and Forrest deduces that she had been assaulted as well. Jack arrives at the bridge but is wounded by Rakes. Howard and Forrest arrive and a shootout ensues, with Forrest and his driver also shot by Rakes. A large convoy of bootleggers then join the shootout on the brothers' side. Rakes is about to finish off the wounded Forrest but is shot in the leg by Sheriff Hodges in an effort to halt the bloodshed. Rakes shoots Forrest several more times before trying to escape. Jack and Howard confront Rakes and execute him together.
Following the end of Prohibition in 1933, Wardell is arrested on corruption charges while the Bondurants are all married — Jack to Bertha, Forrest to Maggie, and Howard to a Martinville woman — and working in legitimate occupations. During a festive reunion at Jack's house sometime later, Forrest drunkenly ambles to a frozen lake and falls into the freezing water. Although he drags himself out, he later dies of pneumonia, putting to rest the legend of his invincibility.Shia LaBeouf as Jack Bondurant
Tom Hardy as Forrest Bondurant
Jason Clarke as Howard Bondurant
Guy Pearce as Special Deputy Charley Rakes
Jessica Chastain as Maggie Beauford
Mia Wasikowska as Bertha Minnix
Dane DeHaan as Cricket Pate
Chris McGarry as Danny
Tim Tolin as Mason Wardell
Gary Oldman as Floyd Banner
Lew Temple as Deputy Henry Abshire
Marcus Hester as Deputy Jeff Richards
Bill Camp as Sheriff Hodges
Alex Van as Tizwell Minnix
Noah Taylor as Gummy Walsh
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. 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."
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."
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. Originally titled The Wettest County in The World like the book, the film's title was changed to The Promised Land. Although Hillcoat intended to begin shooting in February 2010, in January the project was reported to have fallen apart due to financing problems. 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.'" 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."
By December 2010, Hardy and Chastain were reported to have joined the project. It was then being financed by Michael Benaroya of Benaroya Pictures and Megan Ellison of Annapurna Pictures. Jason Clarke and Dane DeHaan were cast in January 2011. Guy Pearce, Gary Oldman, and Mia Wasikowska joined the cast in February 2011.
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." 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." 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. Pearce created the hairstyle worn by Rakes in the film.
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. The cast lived in apartments in Peachtree City for three months during production, and Hillcoat screened dailies for the cast every weekend. 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.
In March 2011, Momentum Pictures and its parent company Alliance Films acquired the U.K. and Canadian distribution rights. In May 2011, the Weinstein Company bought the U.S. distribution rights, with plans for a wide release. In March 2012, the title was changed to Lawless.
Cave scored the film with Warren Ellis. 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.
Lawless screened In Competition at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival on May 19 and received a nearly 10-minute standing ovation. 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. Audiences polled by the market research firm CinemaScore gave Lawless a B+ grade on average.
Reviews of Lawless have been mostly positive. Rotten Tomatoes shows a "fresh" approval rating of 67% based on 204 reviews counted, with the critics 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 an average rating of 6.5/10. At Metacritic, which assigns a weighted average score based upon reviews from mainstream critics, the film received a metascore of 58/100 based on 38 reviews, but received a more favorable 8.0/10 user score based on 329 ratings from regular fans.
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." 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". 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." 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."
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." 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." 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." 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."
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." 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." 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." 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."
A soundtrack for the film was released on August 28, 2012: