“Lawless” (**** OUT OF ****) amounts to a first-rate, fiercely violent, but surprisingly entertaining crime thriller about Prohibition-era bootleggers in rural Virginia. Not only does this exceptional 115-minute moonshine melodrama boast a gallery of memorable characters but also several unforgettable performances. Although Shia LaBeouf takes top billing as the youngest of the three Bondurant brothers who brewed white lightning, Tom Hardy is the actor to watch in this rugged R-rated epic about turf wars in the woods. Keep in mind, “Lawless” constitutes another of those movies “based on a true story.” Interestingly, Australian director John Hillcoat of “The Proposition” and scenarist Nick Cave have adapted Matt Bondurant’s bestselling 2008 historical novel “The Wettest County in the World” and delivered a colorful, sometimes savage saga about the American free enterprise system. What truth lies in the novel deserves scrutiny since Bondurant wrote about his own grandfather, Jack Bondurant, along with his two grand uncles and their high octane, Depression Era exploits as bootleggers who refused to bow to outside competition. Most of “Lawless” chronicles the efforts of corrupt lawmen as they shake down rural moonshiners. Anybody who doesn’t grovel pays a terrible price. These sadistic dastards with badges tar and feather one unfortunate bootlegger and leave him for dead on his kin's front porch. Despite the eruptions of sudden, noisy violence that will startle some and shock others, “Lawless” has more than its share of quiet, introspective moments to offset its abrupt Sergio Leone style violence. Indeed, Hillcoat and Cave slip in two love stories. Cinematically, this atmospheric yarn resembles the Coen brothers' Depression-Era opus "O Brother, Where Art Thou," but it takes itself far more seriously. Just as “O Brother” was inspired by Homer’s heroic poem "The Odyssey," the characters participating in the Great Franklin County Moonshine Conspiracy emerge as titans-of-industry themselves.
Things change for both good and bad for the Bondurants and their kind. A dancer from Chicago, Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain of “The Help”), hits Forrest up for a job as a waitress. Eventually, Forrest and she grow fond of each another. Meantime, Virginia Commonwealth District Attorney Mason Wardell (newcomer Tim Tolin) prefers to skim the profits from the bootleggers rather than shut them down. He deputizes some unsavory Chicago troublemakers with few sentiments about the sanctity of human life. The most prominent is sadistic Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce of “L.A. Confidential”) who dresses like a stockbroker. Rakes behaves like a Nazi, wears gloves, dyes his hair black, and arms himself with only the best weapons. He assaults defenseless Jack with a shotgun and sends the battered twentysomething home with a message that should Forrest anticipate rougher treatment. Two thugs arrive at Forrest’s bar and inflict maximum pain on him. Later, after other depredations, Rakes kills somebody close to the Bondurants.
Director John Hillcoat keeps things moving swiftly enough so the story never bogs down. After the gunsmoke settles and the bodies are hauled off, Hillcoat wraps up the history neatly and gives us a glimpse of what the actual participants looked like in a 1917 black and white photograph. Hillcoat stages several above-average shoot-outs, especially the bullet-blasting finale at a covered bridge. Film editor Dylan Tichenor and Hillcoat have done a splendid job of editing the action scenes so the violence is more dramatic than gratuitous. In other words, the violence may make you flinch, but you won’t be sickened by unnecessary gore. The attention to period detail seems scrupulous, too. Hillcoat substitutes Georgia for Virginia. The rustic settings, the wooden barns, and the country stores as well as the clean-scrubbed urban cityscapes with period advertisements give “Lawless” an authentic feel. Cinematographer Benoît Delhomme of “1408” captures those hundreds of fires blazing against the majestic backdrop of rural Virginia with his panoramic widescreen lens. Memorable movies about moonshiners in the south are few and far between. “Lawless” ranks as the best example about rural bootleggers since director Richard Quine's “The Moonshine War” (1970) with Alan Alda and Patrick McGoohan.