Lawless is a movie based on the real life Bondurant brothers. These three were the kings of moonshining in Franklin County, Virginia. The oldest, Howard (Jason Clarke), is big, dumb, and often drunk. The youngest is Jack (Shia LaBeouf), who has always been the runt of the litter. The middle brother, Forrest (Tom Hardy), is the man in charge. He speaks very little, mostly to threaten people. When Special Deputy Rakes (Guy Pearce) comes in from Chicago to enforce new rules it starts a feud between the moonshiners and the lawmen (who up until now have allowed the system to go on). Rakes, and his boss, want a piece of the action, and most of moonshiners are willing to go along. But the thing is a Bondurant “don’t lay down for nobody.”
The feud begins almost immediately, and Rakes attacks Jack first. Then men are sent after Forrest and the new waitress of their diner, Maggie (Jessica Chastain). Forrest has his throat slit, but Maggie manages to get him to the hospital, although the story that gets started is that he walked. That is the crux of this movie. The Bondurant’s are legends. Even they believe that they might be immortal, especially Forrest. He is confident in his own prowess and control. Of course, they are not immortal, but their legend is what keeps them alive. The local police are afraid of them. Rakes soon escalates the conflict, both in the official ways and in brutal intimidation. He leaves a man tarred and feathered on the Bondurant’s porch, with a sign that reads “bootlegger.”
Rakes main problem, other than being a psychopath, is that he doesn’t understand the culture that he has tried to invade. These are what my dad would call “hill folk.” They don’t like strangers, and they are very proud. Rakes sees them as nothing more than animals that need to fall into line. His disdain and obsessive cleanliness make him the perfect foil for the Bondurant brothers. Prohibition is always seen as being a step too far in limiting freedom. That’s why it was often ignored and eventually repealed. It was a time when the outlaws were the heroes again. The Bondurant’s saw themselves as protectors of a way of life, independent of the laws of mortal men. For a while it works, even with Rakes. They have a huge business with another gangster that keeps them from having to deal with selling locally. Then the lawmen find their biggest still, and in process of escaping make Rakes angry enough to bring the fight to another level. He murders their crippled friend Cricket (Dane DeHaan). This unites the locals, and leads to a stand-off with law. Eventually even the local lawmen turn on Rakes when his madness is revealed. He shoots Jack and Forrest and tries to escape. He doesn’t make it. Jack kills him as revenge for Cricket.
The movie ends with Jack narrating what happened afterwards. Forrest and Jack both live, get married, and have kids. They are happier. Forrest eventually dies of “dumb luck and pneumonia.” This would seem to suggest that they are not in fact immortal. Jack had stopped believing that a long time ago, but it was hard for Forrest to let go of his legend. This is movie doesn’t try to encourage that, or even approve of all the things the Bondurant’s did, but it does say something powerful about belief in one’s own power, and about the danger in trying to take away a man’s freedom when he’s willing to do anything to keep it.