Directed by John Hillcoat
Starring: Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain  
Rated R for strong, bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity   
115 min.

Here is Australian director John Hillcoat’s idea of a good time at the movies: A Prohibition Era period piece about a real-life clan of Virginia bootleggers, in which throats are slashed with knives and crushed with brass knuckles; a cripple gets his neck snapped; a man is scalded by hot tar; and at least one pair of testicles is severed, packaged and left on a doorstep. A female bartender is raped off-screen, and in the final moments of the film, a character dances a drunken jig, slips and falls into a lake and later dies of pneumonia. If only a puppy had gotten kicked down a flight of stairs, then we’d really have a swinging party on our hands!

But seriously, folks. In an oeuvre defined by overbearing bleakness — remember, this is the guy who thought The Road would make a great movie — Lawless is the most easily digestible of Hillcoat’s bitter pills. Based on the book The Wettest County in the World, author Matt Bondurant’s investigation into his family’s history as outlaw moonshiners, the film blends truth and myth into the kind of crowd-pleasing historical thriller that used to get Kevin Costner nominated for Oscars back in the ’90s. Adapted by musician Nick Cave, who wrote Hillcoat’s masterful Outback western The Proposition, it still bears the filmmaker’s stamp of brutality (need I remind you of the thing with the testicles?), but for Hillcoat, this is a popcorn flick. There are actual moments of humor and everything!

The movie is studded with great performances. For the second time this summer, Tom Hardy excels at playing a practically invincible, totally incomprehensible brute. As Forrest Bondurant, the eldest of three brothers who dominated the black-market liquor business in small Franklin County, Va., in the 1920s, Hardy speaks 30 percent of his dialogue in a mumbled twang. The other 70 percent is wordless grunting. (His reaction to Jessica Chastain walking naked into his bedroom: “Whaddyadoin’?” When she crawls under the covers: “Hrrmph.”) As with Bane, his character in The Dark Knight Rises, he commands attention through imposing physicality alone. And, again, it’s fun to watch.

Other standouts include: Shia LeBeouf, perfectly cast as the runt of the Bondurant litter; Dane DeHaan, warmly empathetic as a rickets-plagued distiller prodigy; Guy Pearce, biting heartily into the role of a ruthless special agent, dressing like a ventriloquist’s dummy and delivering lines with the zeal of a Dick Tracy villain; and Chastain, as usual making the most of an underwritten role as a Chicago hooker hiding from her past in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Obviously, Hillcoat roped in a stellar cast. It’s just a pity he couldn’t keep track of them all. Apropos of a movie about alcohol, the biggest problem with Lawless is balance. Other than Hardy, and LaBeouf who narrates the film and serves as its emotional center, the best roles seem to have gotten cut to ribbons in the editing room. Pearce, for instance, goes missing for long stretches of time, despite being the film’s lead heavy. Most egregiously misused, though, is Gary Oldman. He’s mesmerizing as the notorious gangster Floyd Banner, chomping on a cigar while tommy-gunning his rivals on dusty mountains roads in broad daylight. The film teases him early on as a major player in the Bondurant story, only to have him disappear after two scenes.

And then there’s the ending. Hillcoat tags on an epilogue that, without giving too much away, ties matters up a bit too conveniently, particularly for a film that climaxes in a shootout. It’s nice to see the director concluding on an up-note for once, but did the package have to wrap up so tidily? OK, maybe that’s how it actually went down. But the theme of Lawless concerns the way legends get twisted into reality. Couldn’t Cave — an artist who, in his songs and screenplays, rarely lets anyone off easily — have twisted this legend into something more worthy of all the blood and bullets?