The Lawless Bondurant Brothers

Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company
August 8th, 2012

While the United States is largely a law-abiding society, most Americans do not consider the manufacture and sale of illegal alcohol as much of a crime. If anything, freedom-loving Americans think of bootleg distillers as underground heroes who do the dirty work of fighting government intrusion.

The reality of bootlegging is very different from its heroic image. Bootlegging was the work of criminal gangs who were no more moral than La Cosa Nostra or the drug gangs of today. Violence was directed against competing gangs just as much as it was against law enforcement agents. Nevertheless, the romantic image of bootlegging remains in the hearts and minds of Americans.

It is against this backdrop of imagined heroism and real violence that "Lawless" tells the story of the Bondurant brothers. The brothers, Forrest, Jack and Howard Bondurant, were actual bootleggers. They were active during Prohibition, when bootlegging morphed from a backwoods exploit to a national industry. After all, during that ill-conceived dry spell, bootleggers and smugglers were the only sources of liquor.

The plot of the story is a typical romantic version of the conflict between bootleggers and law enforcement. The Bondurant brothers are clearly portrayed as the good guys, whereas law enforcement agents are depicted as evil interlopers who try to block the success of three enterprising young men. In this particular case, the law enforcement agents are also on the wrong side of the law. They are not looking to shut down the Bondurant operations. Instead, they want what many Prohibition-era cops and sheriffs sought, namely, part of the profits in exchange for immunity from arrest.

Matt Bondurant, a grandson of Jack Bondurant, wrote the book on which "Lawless" is based. Therefore, the film relates events as seen and recorded by Jack Bondurant, the youngest of the three brothers. Shia LaBeouf, an up-and-coming movie star and box-office draw, plays Jack in the film. As the youngest brother, Jack tries to impress his older brothers and live up to their local reputations as heroes. Tom Hardy portrays the tough Forrest Bondurant, who is considered practically invincible after defying severe illness as well as the vicissitudes of life as a bootlegger. The eldest brother, Howard Bondurant, is a fragile man who suffered psychological damage after serving in World War I. He is an alcoholic, which is often a fatal flaw for a moonshiner. Jason Clarke portrays Howard in "Lawless." Jessica Chastain, a classical theater and indie film star, is the female lead of the film. She plays Maggie, a city girl who becomes involved with the Bondurants and manages their illegal saloon.

The brothers' chief nemesis is the new special deputy, Charlie Rakes. Rakes is from Chicago, which was known for violent bootlegger gang warfare during Prohibition. It was also known for police corruption, and Rakes is treacherous and corrupt as well as violent. Big city crime enters the film in another persona, that of Floyd Banner, a city slicker who becomes a partner in the Bondurant enterprise. Jack Bondurant is especially anxious to use Banner's talents and connections to break into the big leagues of illegal alcohol production and distribution.

It is precisely here where the line between the romantic image of Prohibition bootleggers and the reality of the social decay that they fomented is drawn. When bootlegging remained in Franklin County, Virginia, the scene of "Lawless," it was indeed a backwoods rebellion against government authority. Violence did occur between local gangs, but this violence often arose out of old family feuds as much as it did from disputes over bootlegging territory. Once the sophisticated gangsters from cities like Chicago brought their ruthlessness and gang mentality to the Virginia mountains, rural bootlegging became a blight on society, much as drug dealing is today.

Matt Bondurant has actually tasted bootleg liquor, as he readily admits that family members continue to distill it. While illicit distilling is a felony, small rural stills are hardly the threat that their Prohibition-era predecessors were. Small-scale bootlegging is once again more of a hobby than a crime, and the only way to experience the days of the old bootleggers is by watching films like "Lawless."

"Lawless" is not a documentary, and it is clear that Matt Bondurant created a romantic portrayal of his family's past in the book upon which this film is based. Nevertheless, it will attract history buffs and fans of documentaries along with those who appreciate gangster and Western movies. "Lawless" recreates a world that disappeared long ago. It portrays that world in a positive light without completely ignoring or glossing over the most negative parts of that world.