The Bondurant boys have their differences and even get into a few scuffles, but they all feel fiercely protective of one another—to the point of risking their lives.
Jack has a crush on a local Amish girl named Bertha. And though she never pushes him to change his ways, Jack starts dressing better and acting a bit more civilized in hopes of gaining her favor. Likewise, Forrest can't take his eyes off Maggie, a dancer from Chicago who drifts into town to try to find a new job. And we see the usually reserved and gruntingly quiet guy become vocally protective of her.
[Spoiler Warning] All three Bondurants eventually get married, settle down, raise families … and end their moonshining ways.
Bertha's father is a pastor, and Jack walks into his small church while the man's talking about God's grace. The congregants sing hymns and begin a foot-washing ceremony before an inebriated Jack rushes back out. We see a cross displayed on a casket.
Maggie gets tired of waiting for Forrest to make a move, so she strips off all her clothes and walks into his room naked, letting the camera catch her from nearly every angle (including the front) as she slides into bed beside him and they begin caressing. A woman in Agent Rake's room sits naked (breasts visible) and seemingly frightened on his bed. Another woman runs topless from the scene of a crime.
We see Maggie dancing seductively. Several men ogle her, who's usually dressed in formfitting attire. Two men corner her in a dark room and hold a knife to her chest. It's implied that they rape her; we see her later with bruises on her shoulder and back.
Howard begins to climb seductively on top of a woman who's lying stretched out on the ground. They kiss. Jack kisses Bertha, and he sneaks looks while she changes clothes behind the car. (We see part of her bare back.)
To drive the point home that the Depression was a ruthless and violent time in some quarters, the filmmakers turn the gory blood spatter up. The opening scene shows a young Jack shying away from killing a pig, while his older brother blows the animal's brains out. Things quickly shift to tommy gun battles where gangsters are riddled with bullets and left lying in pools of their own blood. (Kids later walk into the bloody scene and pick up a discarded machine gun.)
The many gun-blazing moments actually intensify from there. We repeatedly watch people get shot and then bleed out with wounds to the abdomen, chest or throat. We repeatedly watch people get shot, fall flat and then struggle to their feet again to keep blazing away.
One guy is shot several times and painfully ripped open with a knife to the back. Rakes decides to make an example of Jack and mercilessly beats the young man bloody and senseless in a protracted scene full of close-ups: The weaponless Jack is punched, hit in the face with a gun barrel, kicked in the groin and stomach, and battered until he's a bloody, weeping mess begging for mercy. He gets none.
In equally brutal fashion, Forrest loves to palm a set of brass knuckles, and we see him wield them repeatedly to pounding, blood-gushing effect. After getting his throat slowly slit by a thug with a large blade, he (somehow miraculously recovering) tracks down and emasculates the perpetrators. He puts one man's testicles in a jar as a present for Rakes.
The young cripple Cricket is manhandled and has his neck broken for nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A man is tarred and feathered. Another is hit in the face with a shovel.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Homemade booze makes it way from still to jar to hands to lips any number of times here. We see Jack and Howard drunk on the stuff. Forrest gets drunk and falls into a frozen lake.
Cigarette smoking is a common occurrence as well. Jack and Forrest smoke cigars.
Other Negative Elements
Racist references get thrown around a bit, targeting African-Americans and Native Americans. An example: Rakes makes a supposition that the Bondurants must have some "Indian" in them to make them so animalistic.
If it's not already painfully obvious, I'll point out here that since Prohibition is the law of the land, nearly everything the Bondurants do is illegal. But all the authority figures in this film are as crooked and often ruthless as the lawbreakers. So the local cops are more than happy to buy booze from the Bondurants, and everybody else just wants a slice of the big money action. Jack steals from his brother.
After Jack gets beaten up, Forrest quietly makes it known that Jack should seek retribution—and that he can never let a beat down happen again if he wants to be a Bondurant. "It's not the violence that sets a man apart, it's the distance that he's willing to go," Forrest tells him.
Based on the book The Wettest County in the World, by Matt Bondurant, Lawless is said to be something akin to real life Prohibition history intermarried with back hills legend. In truth, though, the movie is a pretty well-worn moonshine story that we've seen time and again: The unstoppable force of a crooked lawman meets the immovable object of a few backwoods bootleggers. The result is plenty-a shootin' and still-smashin' in them thar hills.
So, minus a story with anything fresh to say, all this movie has to sell, really, is star power, depression-era texture and bare-knuckle grit. And it's got overflowing vats of each. The sets and scenery look realistic enough to almost beg for a sepia tone camera filter. And the actors deliver theatrical flair aplenty, from Tom Hardy's grunting bootleg brother to Jessica Chastain's looking-for-a-better-life ex-feather dancer to Guy Pearce's fastidious but viscous special agent.
What makes it all blow up like an overheated still, however, is the over-the-top blood-spurting, throat-slashing, neck-snapping violence. It's at first reminiscent of a Sam Peckinpah pic without the slo-mo. And when you add in full-frontal nudity and an open spigot of profanity, a foot-washing ceremony won't even begin to get all the grime off of anyone walking through.
Like the white lightning it showcases, this is a flick that might look like a Mason jar full o' fun, but you'll find it burns somethin' wicked whilst you're gulping it down.