Leave it to a couple of Aussies to come for the long-unclaimed Great American Bootlegging Movie crown. John Hillcoat, who worked with sometime-screenwriter Nick Cave on 2006’s gritty The Proposition, darts from Down Under to the pot-still-dotted hills of rural Virginia for a true-but-embellished tale of bloody American ingenuity. Based on Matt Bondurant’s The Wettest County in the World, a work of historical fiction that rendered the real-life exploits of his ’shine-running forebears more than camera-ready, Lawless chews its gum loud, but its sturdy familial bones and deftness with details override any obnoxious meandering.
The uninitiated baby in a family with white lightning coursing through its veins, Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf) wants so badly to be bad, but his older siblings Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) don’t think he has the stones. As Prohibition-era leaders in booze-soaked Franklin County, the clan enjoys its good-ol’-boy life in a bubble thanks to Howard’s menacing enforcement and Forrest’s long-standing reputation as impossible to kill, which he earned by besting yellow fever as a lad. But money-minded Jack, unhappy with the negligible reach of the business, dips his ladle into a rushing river of cash by fostering sales relationships with big-city gangsters like Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) — an expansion move that infuriates vengeful Chi-town Amendment XVIII operative Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce, having too much fun), hellbent on shutting the Bondurants down for good.
There are fistfights and shootouts and brutal knifings galore as the trio defends its turf from Rake's goons, while the film’s women — preacher’s daughter Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) and reformed bombshell Maggie (Jessica Chastain) — are treated like feeble dandelions at best. But it’s the brothers and their very real, very strained connections that temper the radioactive testosterone levels. It’s appealing to see Hardy, fresh off his strangely tuned turn as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, play such a passive and understated aggressor, fond of reciting gruff personal philosophies before bashing someone’s face in with brass knuckles. But it’s LaBeouf’s chip-on-the-shoulder seizing of the put-upon little brother, so eager to prove he’s as gallant as the siblings he’ll always rank below, that makes the most of this stylish opportunity.