Moonshiners Go to War in Lawless

On Tap September 2012Moonshiners Go to War in Lawless
Joe Flood
On Tap, September 2012

Lawless is a flash-bang grenade of a movie, rollicking from start to stop as it uncovers the true story of Prohibition-era moonshiners in the wild mountains of Virginia.

Tom Hardy, fresh off his Dark Knight success, shines in Lawless as the indestructible leader of the Bondurant brothers, a family of bootleggers with a reputation for not backing down. He brings a sense of hulking and mumbling menace to the role, directing the backwoods booze-producing as he keeps his brothers Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia LaBeouf) in line. Maggie Chastain stars as his flame-haired love interest while Gary Oldman rounds out the cast as a machine-gun wielding gangster.

Set during Prohibition, when alcohol was banned in America, everyone in Franklin County is on the take, including the local sheriff. From city slickers to pious church-goers, the Bondurants fill the need for alcohol with mason jars full of the raw stuff.

The tranquility of their operation is disrupted by a particularly oily Guy Pearce as special agent Charlie Rakes. When this ultra-violent Northerner meets the immoveable Bondurants, civil war breaks out. The bodies pile up as blows are exchanged by everyone wanting to claim rights to the lucrative booze trade. It’s a backwoods Game of Thrones.

And it’s a true story. Lawless is based upon the novel The Wettest County in the World by Matthew Bondurant. His novel is built on his grandfather’s memories and testimony from the Moonshine Conspiracy Trial of 1935. Franklin County, located in the mountains above Roanoke, was a center of illicit liquor production during Prohibition.

Bondurant turned to fiction to explain his family’s notorious history. His grandfather said, “The family was poor before the Great Depression, poor during it and poor after.” Making moonshine helped the Bondurants survive the lean years. And making untaxed liquor was a traditional American form of rebellion by a hard-headed lot.

What does moonshine taste like? Bondurant explains that it is strong, hot and with a flavor somewhere between bourbon and Everclear. He suggests letting peaches soak in the liquor to improve the taste.

With Nick Cave as screenwriter, you know the music will be great and the Bad Seeds frontman does not disappoint. In addition to a couple of tracks by Cave, the movie features music by Emmylou Harris and Ralph Stanley. The music sets the tone of the film and places us squarely in Depression-era rural America.

Be warned, the Bondurants are still out there. Maybe a little tamer than their moonshining days and not so indestructible. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

Author: Joe Flood

Joe Flood is a writer, photographer and web person from Washington, DC. The author of several novels, Joe won the City Paper Fiction Competition in 2020. In his free time, he enjoys wandering about the city taking photos.

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