Review originally published May 23, 2012 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.
The recipe for potent movie moonshine is as follows. You take an indestructible hero, a scrappy underdog, a memorable villain and a dame with a checkered past; mix in several moments of triumphant violence; throw in some wisecracks; boil it for a couple hours; then sit back and drink it until you feel dizzy.
That formula works just fine in "Lawless," a bouncy, messy, bloody, fact-based piece of entertainment set among Virginia bootleggers during the Prohibition. Even with its throat-slittings and brass-knuckle-bashings, it's the most lighthearted thing director John Hillcoat has made. There weren't many laughs in the post-apocalyptic "The Road" or the dusty Australian vengeance tale "The Proposition" (which, like "Lawless," was written by musician Nick Cave). There are plenty of laughs here, interspersed with cringes and gasps.
As you might guess, the "villain" is law enforcement, and our heroes are good ol' boys who happen to make a living producing booze in the 1930s. They are the Bondurant brothers: hot-headed team leader Forrest (Tom Hardy), hulking enforcer Howard (Jason Clarke), and eager-to-prove-himself Jack (Shia LaBeouf), the youngest, who also narrates. (The story was adapted from the book "The Wettest County in the World," by Matt Bondurant, Jack's grandson.) All three can handle themselves in a fight, but Forrest, in particular, seems nearly unkillable, which should contribute plenty to Tom Hardy's status as Hollywood's badass du jour.
While their fellow bootleggers are content to pay the necessary bribes to keep the feds off their backs, the Bondurants will do no such thing. This means they have no buffer when a new menace, special agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), arrives from Chicago with the intention of eradicating the hooch business. Rakes is a fastidious, bow-tied, glove-wearing prig who parts his hair forcibly down the middle. His fussy demeanor is balanced by his fondness for brutal, outside-the-law enforcement tactics: He's as savagely violent as the men he's trying to capture.
As the Bondurants and Charlie Rakes scheme against each other, with competing moonshine producers and corrupt local cops complicating matters, young Jack and his lame-legged buddy Cricket (Dane DeHaan) try to prove their value to the family business. Their idol is the notorious outlaw Floyd Banner, who's played with such marvelous flair by Gary Oldman that you'll wish the character had more screen time. Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a beautiful and possibly dangerous woman with an unsavory past, comes on as the Bondurants' barmaid and Forrest's love interest, and Jack courts a preacher's daughter named Bertha (Mia Wasikowska).
You may be disappointed to learn that Shia LaBeouf, not Tom Hardy, is the lead actor. That reaction is natural, and Jack's extracurricular affairs and coming-of-age dramas aren't especially compelling, either. But LaBeouf does solid work, more than holding his own opposite Hardy, Oldman, Pearce, and the others. The Bondurant brothers' family discussions are often explosively funny, and their interactions with enemies tend to result in much bloodshed on both sides. Hillcoat revels in the realities of these skirmishes. Let it not be said that "Lawless" only inflicts pain on its antagonists.
This is all a great deal of rowdy, crowd-pleasing fun, and there ain't nothin' wrong with that. The only drawback is that nearly everything about the plot and characters is so familiar. We've seen this movie before, and we know more or less how it's going to play out. But the taste of this particular blend still stings real good going down.