Responding to the September 11 attacks on US embassies in Libya and Egypt, Fox News correspondent Ralph Peters made this controversial statement: “Obama’s appeasement policy . . . won’t work against these radical Islamists. With people like these, when they kill four of yours, you have to kill 400 of theirs.”
Peters’ outrageous, counterintuitive “defense plan” is more a cynical observation than a suggestion. It reminds me of a scene of hillbilly justice portrayed in Lawless, a movie set in 1930s Virginia, during the Prohibition era. As thugs from one group prepare to kill two bootleggers from another, one young victim cries out his name and where he is from. The leader of the attackers immediately releases the boys and punishes his own men for what they were about to do, explaining in disgust, “The last thing I need is a blood feud coming after me.” We kill two of theirs, they’ll kill 200 of ours. So we don’t kill their two.
The title Lawless obviously refers to the renegade behavior of the film’s moonshining protagonists, but it also refers to the corrupt police officers who look the other way while they get their share of both the hooch and the profits. More importantly, the title refers to the kind of violent thuggery that often erupts in the absence of sensible laws — laws that protect property rights, the freedom to choose, and the freedom to be left alone. Without a legal framework of basic rights enforced by judges, tyrants generally rise up to fill the void and enforce their own “laws.”
Lawlessis based on the true story of the Boudrant brothers, Howard (Jason Clarke), Forrest (Tom Hardy), and Jack (Shia LeBeouf), who operate a moonshine business in the hills of Virginia. Forrest is something of a legend in the area because he has survived so many life-threatening events: for example, injuries sustained during World War I, the Spanish flu that killed both Boudrant parents, and violent attacks by would-be robbers. In the film he is a complex character, fiercely protective of family and friends but with an indifference to pain and just a hint of sadism that makes him unpredictable and dangerous. He is a sympathetic foil for the antagonist in the story, Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a fancy-dressed germaphobe with more than that hint of sadism; he’s cold, he’s mean, and he likes it. A big-city lawman from Chicago, Rakes is sent to Virginia to clean out the stills, but instead he demands a cut of the action from all the moonshiners in the area, using the local law officials to enforce his new regime. When the Boudrant brothers refuse to pay, a backwoods war breaks out.
Narrating the story is the youngest Boudrant brother, Jack, a gentle soul who eschews violence and would rather spend his time hanging out with his best friend Cricket (Dane DeHaan) and wooing his Mennonite girlfriend Bertha (Mia Wasikowska). But when his brothers are attacked, Jack defends the family’s honor. He takes over the business, despite the added risks involved in transporting the hooch past Rakes’ mob of outlaw lawmen. Because fewer moonshiners are willing to take that risk, Jack can demand higher prices. Like drug dealers today, he takes advantage of the profits created by the government ban and spends his newfound cash on fancy clothes and fancier cars. Predictably, his gentle character begins to harden.
Rakes is sent to Virginia to clean out the stills, but instead he demands a cut of the action from all the moonshiners in the area, using the local law officials to enforce his new regime.
The film has moments of bloody violence, including a scene reminiscent of the groundbreaking shootout that occurred midway through Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and pushed the limits of acceptability. But Lawless also has moments of sublime beauty, especially in the musical score, which is filled with folk music of the Virginia hills. Tom Hardy continues to stretch his acting muscles with another knockout performance as Forrest. Hardy first caught my attention in Inception (2010), then as the conflicted Ricki Tarr in last year’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. He even stood out as the lovestruck political assassin in the lightweight This Means War. I can’t wait to see what he does with the title role in the upcoming Mad Max: Fury Road.
My favorite part of this film occurs during the epilogue. We all know that Prohibition finally ended, so I’m not giving away too much to let you know that life changes in Virginia when the law is repealed. Mason jars filled with colorless “white lightning” fade into Mason jars filled with colorful fruits and vegetables. It is reported that one character finds work in a cotton mill, while another turns the family property into a farm — a tobacco farm, ironically. “Choose your poison” indeed. Yes, they could have engaged in legal employment all along, but let’s face it: labor follows the profits. Who is going to work in a factory or a fast-food joint for minimum wage when black market profits are so much more lucrative? Governments can ban access to certain products and activities, but they can’t ban the demand for those products and activities. And when supply is artificially limited through government intrusion, prices and profits go up. It’s simple arithmetic.
Lawless is a timely reminder of the unintended consequences that inevitably arise when governments try to mandate social behavior. Do-gooders in the early 20th century deemed drunkenness socially unacceptable, and outlawed the sale of booze. Crime syndicates, corrupt police, and shooting sprees were the unintended results. Missing the point, do-gooders followed in the footsteps of Prohibition with the War on Drugs, and untold misery has resulted: violent drug cartels, corrupt police, countless men and women languishing in prisons, and more shooting sprees. This week, Mayor Bloomberg brought the war against individual choice to new lows when he banned the sale of large sodas in New York City. Large sodas! Doesn’t he have more important things to worry about in the face of burgeoning welfare rolls, massive unemployment, and the skyrocketing price of public transportation? What new market distortions and legal corruption will result from this ridiculous ban on large soft drinks?
As a film, Lawless may not prove to be a timeless classic. But its themes are certainly timeless and, unfortunately, timely.