Lawless is a 2012 American crime drama film directed by John Hillcoat. The screenplay, by Australian singer-screenwriter Nick Cave, is based on Matt Bondurant’s historical novel The Wettest County in the World (2008). The film stars Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, and Guy Pearce.
The film is about the violent conflict between three bootlegging brothers: Forrest (Hardy), Howard (Clarke), and Jack Bondurant (LaBeouf) — and the ruthless lawman Charley Rakes (Pearce), who tries to shut down the brothers’ Prohibition-era moonshine business after Forrest refuses to pay him 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 — middle brother Forrest, eldest brother Howard, and youngest brother Jack — are running a successful moonshine business in Franklin County, Virginia. The brothers use their gas station and restaurant as a front for dealing with the assistance of Cricket, Jack’s mechanically gifted friend who builds and maintains their stills. Jack witnesses rum-runner Floyd Banner shoot dead two federal agents in broad daylight for trying to arrest him.
Forrest hires Maggie, a financially struggling dancer, as a waitress. Shortly afterward, the gas station is visited by newly appointed U.S. Marshal Charley Rakes, accompanied by the sheriff and corrupt state’s attorney Mason Wardell. Rakes demands that he and Wardell receive a cut of profits from all bootleggers within the county, including Forrest, in exchange for ignoring their operations. Forrest refuses and 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. Later that night, Forrest throws out two drunk customers who had been harassing and threatening Maggie. After Maggie 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 hides the assault from Forrest, not wanting him to take revenge.
While Forrest recovers at a hospital, Jack, deciding to retire from bootlegging rather than cross Rakes any further, crosses the county line with Cricket to sell their remaining liquor. They get ambushed by Banner and his crew 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, revealing that both men are former bootleggers now working as deputy marshals for Rakes.