Lawless: Bondurant Boys Depicted as Appalachian Gangsters

Lawless is the South’s answer to the typical gangster film–just trade the Yankee accents for Southern growls. Based on the book, “The Wettest County in the World,” author Matt Bondurant spins a tale of his grandfather and grand-uncles, who are bootleggers in Franklin County, Virginia during Prohibition.

Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke), and Jack (Shia LaBeouf) Bondurant successfully run moonshine out of the mountains and into Chicago, until the law gets involved–and not in the way you might initially think. In what’s referred to as the Great Franklin County Moonshine Conspiracy, Commonwealth Attorney Mason Wardell got his hands dirty when he demanded money in return for moonshine-running protection. Wardell brings in Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) to encourage (read: bully) all bootleggers into helping, but of course the real fight is with the Bondurants, as they stand against Wardell’s orders. The Bondurant boys become the heroes of the mountain area as they fight to preserve their product and property.

Tom Hardy shines as Forrest Bondurant, the oldest and smartest of the brothers. I’d gone in expecting a tough, bossy big brother, but Hardy’s quiet portrayal of the strongest brother was a pleasant surprise. Hardy bulked up for The Dark Knight Rises and hides his muscles beneath layers of grandfatherly sweaters; he also hides his brass knuckles in the pockets, which makes for some great fight scenes.

He has a few spectacular lines, but it’s what we don’t hear that makes him great–like how he explains how he’s a Bondurant and “we don’t lay down for nobody.” The line itself is good, but the way he delivers it, with pride and strength and a hint of threat, is what makes Forrest the leader of the brothers. He growls out his words exactly like some southern relatives I know and his shy mumbling around Jessica Chastain’s love interest makes Hardy that much more endearing. I rooted for Forrest perhaps more than the other Bondurant brothers. The cast is solid, but Tom Hardy really stands above them all.

That being said, Lawless might be based on a true story, but Hollywood certainly took certain liberties with the storyline. The connection to Chicago was strange–despite my lack of bootleggin’ knowledge, I didn’t think Chicago was a major player when it came to Virginia moonshine. It seemed pretty obvious that the writers brought in a well-known gangster city of the era if only to show the differences in regional attitudes and connect the two locations so the audience realizes there’s an important link in there somewhere.

Gary Oldman’s Chicago gangster character was disappointingly underused, though that may just be my bias towards loving any character he plays. Oldman dances on the line of hammy but he’s enjoyable to watch. His character is simply a way for Jack, the youngest of the brothers and consequently the one who most wants to prove himself, to become more involved with moonshine and gangster life, to show the audience how he gets a better standing in the family business and establish the connection between gangsters, both Yankee and Southern.

Also disappointing was the fact they filmed in Georgia–the scenery is certainly beautiful, but I really wanted to see them film this IN Franklin County. I got excited when I heard they brought in people to help the actors with their accents and I also heard several of the cast and crew visited the area for research, but why not film even a few scenes here? My husband, who’s read the book, did say that he felt that despite the few changes where the movie deviated, the film stayed pretty true to the book, which is speculative fiction wrapped in real history. He was most disappointed that they didn’t show the red clay, a well-known staple in the area that could’ve added a little more local oomph to the story.

Then again, I understand that I’m from the area. I expect nods and winks from the cast–when they talk about “the city,” they’re referring to Roanoke–but I had to remind myself that most people won’t find the historical aspect as fun as we Virginians might. A Californian won’t get the inside jokes, nor will they care, and I get that they wanted to make it more accessible for the audience.

“Lawless” is rated R for sex and violence. It’s certainly violent, with plenty of gunfights and blood (and no one wants to be on the end of Forrest Bondurant’s brass knuckles or switch blade), though several scenes help add to the Bondurant boys’ legacy of being indestructible. As established within the first few minutes, Forrest Bondurant is no stranger to violence, taking any means necessary to protect his family business and stand for what he believes in. Be prepared to watch a few scenes through splayed fingers.

Despite a few flaws, “Lawless” stands on its own as a unique gangster tale. The soundtrack is terrific, including two different bluegrass-infused covers of the Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat” that wouldn’t be out of place at the Country Store down the road.

I saw this in a packed Sunday afternoon theater, where my husband (29) and I (27)  were on the lower end of the age groups. Have you seen the film yet? We’d love to hear your thoughts on this movie based on our own local history! (Perhaps you even know some Bondurant relatives!)

I originally wrote this for my magazine’s blog (Blue Ridge Country Magazine).


About the author

Liz Long

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