Bootlegger flick 'Lawless' like a bracing shot of moonshine

Bootleggers, gangsters, damsels in distress and a corrupt American Dream are given a fiery and violent swig of gritty moonshine in John Hillcoat and Nick Cave’s cracking “Lawless.”

Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke play the infamous Bondurant brothers in Franklin County, Virginia, who have gained a near-mythic reputation as a family of ruthless and invincible bootleggers. When their reputation reaches the Chicago crime world, their mortality quickly becomes questionable as the debonair and perversely violent Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) arrives to shake down their bootlegging outfit.

With “Lawless,” director John Hillcoat (“The Proposition”, “The Road”) continues the visual thread of exploring the human condition under violent or horrific conditions. Based on the fictional novel of the real Bondurant brothers, “The Wettest County in the World” by Matt Bondurant, “Lawless” gives a Golden Age view of violence in America. The violence Hillcoat and screenwriter/musician Nick Cave (of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds fame) present is brutal and senseless but coated with the dashing allure of nostalgia.

LaBeouf makes a welcome departure from his “Transformers” role as Jack, the youngest Bondurant sibling. Jack, unlike his brothers, is an intelligent dreamer, a timid and fragile creature stuck in the midst of a violent war. LaBeouf plays Jack with a mix of adolescent naiveté and the cockiness of a young brother trying to fit in with the big boys, but unfortunately gets in way over his head. LaBeouf may have found a comfortable niche here in a more diverse, commanding role. We are able to see quite a bit more from the young actor away from chasing aliens and robots.

What makes “Lawless” unique from other period gangster films is also what tarnishes it, however. Though the film effectively captures an isolated world during the 1930s, it is never consistent with its realism, dipping from harsh reality to overtly cinematic magic realism without cause or need. LaBeouf’s narration reminds us throughout that this is a legend, but the majority of the action is so realistic that when some of the more unbelievable situations occur (the stuff of legend, supposedly) it becomes unintentionally silly.

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Like the Bondurant’s reputation, “Lawless’s” view of early Prohibition-era Virginia is highly romanticized. Bootleggers live among gangsters, who live among corrupt cops, who live among pious parishioners. Violence, too, is presented as a romantic, almost sexy way of life. The Bondurant boys idolize the infamous gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), celebrating whenever he shoots up a town or brings down another mobster. Oldman is sublime as Banner. He is the rare actor with the gift of unpredictability.

Tom Hardy is the film’s anchor. No other actor, apart from Gary Oldman’s brief appearance, commands your attention as much as Hardy.  “The Dark Knight Rises” star gives a full-bodied, brutish and often charming performance as Forrest Bondurant. Hardy brings levels of quirks and mannerisms to Forrest, giving the bootlegging big brother a subtle layer of tenderness underneath his ferocity and gall.

Nick Cave’s screenplay is sharp and fast while still heavy on character (Cave also did the score with his frequent collaborator Warren Ellis). At its core, “Lawless” is a very traditional gangster film. At times it is predictable -- which doesn’t detract from the richly developed characters -- but Hillcoat and Cave throw a few wrenches into the traditional machine to shake things up and keep the suspense constant. The always stunning Jessica Chastain is Maggie, a glamorous Chicago showgirl hiding out in Franklin County where she and Forrest strike up an unspoken bond. Ordinarily a character like Maggie would be an unbelievable and unwelcome fish-out-of-water in this situation, but Chastain is an actor’s actor and with grace, ease and beauty, makes an otherwise unnatural character feel right at home among the backwoods distilleries.

Mia Wasikowska is the quiet, pious Bertha who gives Jack a glimpse of a life outside of crime and bootlegging. Wasikowska’s quiet demeanor pitted with LaBeouf’s occasional raucousness is excellent casting.

Guy Pearce is often overkill as the sadistic villain. His performance is as natural as inserting Freddy Kruger into the bootlegging hills of 1930s Virginia. He stalks the Bondurants through the woods with his three piece suit and white leather gloves like Jay Gatsby with a violent urge to kill, kill, kill. The character is enticing, if not too cartoonish.

With outstanding production design one of the best ensembles of the year, John Hillcoat and Nick Cave have given us a deliciously full keg of story and character from which to replenish ourselves at summer’s end.