''Lawless'' is less a movie and more like a folk tale with visual accompaniment.
It's based on the true story of the Howard, Forrest and Jack Bondurant, Virginia bootlegging brothers during Prohibition who filled a thirty demand with their homemade moonshine. ''The Wettest County in the World,'' the book by Matt Bondurant (one of Jack's grandchildren) that inspired the film, doesn't profess to be non-fiction, and the movie embraces that rural legend quality.
''Lawless'' feels like a tale that was passed down from generation to generation, probably as a Mason jar of moonshine was passed around. And with each sip, the tale got embellished a little more - the brothers became a little more invincible, their attackers became a little more ruthless, the number of bullets taken gets a little higher.
Viewed through that 100-proof prism, ''Lawless'' is a fun, bloody crime story where the excesses are part of the charm. However, if director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave was aiming for ''Bonnie and Clyde'' resonance, it's closer in tone to ''Bloody Mama'' and the other knock-offs that ''Bonnie and Clyde'' inspired.
In Franklin County, Virginia, in 1931, local law enforcement is willing to look the other way at residents' home-brewing activities; they're even regular customers. The arrival of Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a dandy from Chicago with a slicked back haircut and eyebrows that have been shaved away to almost nothing, changes that. Rakes isn't worried about shutting down the moonshiners as much as making sure he gets his cut.
But the Bondurant boys -Howard (Jason Clarke), the hard-drinkin', reckless one; Forrest (Tom Hardy), the embodiment of the strong, silent type; and Jack, the younger brother desperately trying to prove he's as tough and talented as his siblings - ain't paying for protection to no revenuer.
STARS: Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Jason Clarke, Jessica Chastain, Guy Pearce, Gary Oldman, Mia Wasikowska and Dane DeHaan.
STORYLINE: A trio of bootlegging brothers in Virginia during Prohibition refuse to be shaken down by a crooked special agent from Chicago, triggering a bloody war.
DIRECTOR: John Hillcoat
RATING: R for strong bloody violence, some sexuality/nudity and language
Their resistance sets off a war in this rural 'burg and before it's over, beatings will be administered, throats will be slit and hundreds of rounds of ammunition will be spent. There's even a tar and feathering. And there's also a Chicago mobster (Gary Oldman) who's stealing moonshine loads to satisfy his clientele.
Hillcoat and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme film the action and the setting with exquisite attention to detail. Even though the movie is in color, it has a sepia tone feel, except when Jessica Chastain (who plays an ex-dancer in Chicago who picks the wrong place to relocate if she was looking for peace and quiet) and Mia Wasikowska (a preacher's daughter that Jack is wooing) are on screen. Chastain, with her red hair, clothing and wounded beauty, radiates whenever she is in the scene.
And Cave, better known as a musician than a screenwriter, and Warren Ellis do a marvelous job capturing the setting and the period with their original score and the music on the soundtrack. It's the one aspect where the film matches, and maybe even surpasses, ''Bonnie and Clyde.''
Hardy is a commanding presence here and is the embodiment of the film's anti-hero tone. He's an honorable man with a strong moral code, even if that code doesn't include abiding by the 18th Amendment. Pearce, in turn, relishing in representing the corrupt, hypocritical establishment.
In a movie about bootleggers, he's the ''Lawless'' in the title.