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If you don't get drunk off the moonshine flowing through "Lawless," you're likely to feel a bit light-headed breathing in the atmosphere of director Jeff Hillcoat's engaging period drama.
It's 1931, at the height of the Depression and Prohibition two conditions that have made folks in Franklin County, Va., quite well off. Franklin County had the reputation as "The Wettest County in the World" (the name of Matt Bondurant's best-selling book on which the film is based), because so many moonshine stills were running that the hills "lit up like Christmas lights," in the words of one of Bondurant's ancestors, Jack (Shia LeBeouf).
Jack is the runt of the three Bondurant brothers, who run a gas station and bar and a thriving bootlegging business. Forrest ("The Dark Knight Rises'" Tom Hardy) is the oldest and strongest, while middle brother Howard (Jason Clarke) is the wild one. The Bondurants run their alcohol to their buyers with little trouble, except for a small bribe to the local sheriff (Bill Camp).
But things are changing. The new attorney general, Mason Wardell (Tim Tolin), wants some of the graft for himself, and sends in a special agent the well-groomed Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) as his enforcer. When Forrest decides not to pay off Wardell, Rakes comes in to wreak havoc on the Bondurants' empire, taking particular delight in pounding on little Jack.
Jack decides to fight back, both against Rakes' fury and Forrest's belief that he's too young to take charge. He mounts his own moonshining deal with a top Chicago gangster, Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman). He also tries to make time with Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), the sheltered daughter of a nearby preacher. Meanwhile, Forrest gives shelter to Maggie (Jessica Chastain), who recently escaped from a hard life in Chicago, with interesting consequences.
Hillcoat (who directed "The Road") captures the rough-and-tumble of the Bondurants' bootlegging existence, the violence that erupts at the intersection of money and vice, and the thrill of Jack's rise as a hotshot junior mobster. Screenwriter Nick Cave (who wrote the script for Hillcoat's first movie, "The Proposition") deftly balances between Forrest's story and Jack's and draws out the compelling characters in this blood-soaked slice of American history. (Cave, better known as a rock musician, also collaborated with Warren Ellis on the moody score.)
The casting isn't always perfect (it's hard to picture Hardy and LaBeouf in the same gene pool), but some performances stand out. Best of the lot are Chastain as the world-weary and wounded Maggie, and Pearce's gloriously scenery-chewing turn as the fastidious but ultra-violent bagman. Their energy in "Lawless" proves that history doesn't have to be a dry subject.
Bootleggers in Prohibition-era Virginia find the business changing, sometimes in violent ways, in this absorbing period drama.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Wednesday, Aug. 29.
Rating • R for strong bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity
Running time • 115 minutes.