By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Funny thing about moonshine.
It can make anything seem like you're seeing it for the first time even if you haven't.
Kind of like Lawless, a movie about bootleggers more violently authentic than previous takes on the subject, from Thunder Road to the first half of The Last American Hero. What Lawless has over those moonshine melodramas is a striking sense of period and setting, in this case backwoods Virginia in 1931 where Prohibition makes hooch a shanty industry.
Director John Hillcoat digs into this dirt-brown world of tough times and tougher men with the intensity he brought to Australia's wilderness in The Proposition, drenching it with just as much blood. Like that movie, Lawless is a story of loyalty among brothers of varied fortitude, with the youngest needing to man-up.
The Bondurant brothers are Franklin County's leading bootleggers, mixing potent batches even the sheriff (Bill Camp) can't resist. He gets crates of Mason-jarred hooch in exchange for letting the Bondurants do business but that's about to change, with the arrival of special agent and psycho dandy Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce). Burns plans to mop up the "wettest county in the world," as Franklin is known and author Matt Bondurant titled his source novel, inspired by his family history.
The Bondurants are led by Forrest (Tom Hardy), a sullen brute seldom making eye contact without an intimidating grunt or mumbled threat. He looks dangerous even before the brass knuckles come out of this pocket. Middle brother Howard (Jason Clarke) is the silent type unless he's howling like a wounded animal, wounding someone else. The youngest, Jack (Shia LaBeouf), idolizes his brothers, which leads to trouble.
Jack secretly pulls off a deal with Chicago mobster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman, not here enough), and begins acting like a big shot with a flashy car and clothing. That gets the attention of Burns, who intensifies his obsession to shut down the Bondurants. Many people will die in the pursuit, or else suffer slit throats, tar-and-feathering, castration or (off-screen) rape.
Hillcoat handles the macho material well, creating violent set pieces punctuating screenwriter Nick Cave's flinty face-off dialogues. Cave also composed Lawless' fascinating music, blending Appalachian tones with '90s alt-rock rhythms. Hillcoat and Cave aren't as assured with the parts of Lawless intended to lend emotional depth, particularly romances for Jack and Forrest.
Jessica Chastain plays Maggie, a big-city refugee sticking out like a manicured thumb in Franklin County, contrasting the grime with delicate skin and bright clothing. She goes for Forrest, who has better things to brood about. Mia Wasikowska plays Bertha, an innocent Mennonite maiden Jack has no business being with. Neither do we, with so much more interesting blood to be shed and moonshine to be run.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.