Download Lawless (2012) (HD)

The move from brainless popcorn fare to high-minded Oscar bait is a yearly shift as inevitable as cooler weather and changing leaves. But where do we place John Hillcoat’s “Lawless,” which is opening just before Labor Day?

Consider this brooding moonshine saga your segue between seasons. The gratuitous nudity and bloody shootouts suggest summer; the pedigreed cast and historical subject matter are more commonly found in fall.

Hillcoat (“The Road”) and screenwriter Nick Cave adapted the film from Matt Bondurant’s novel “The Wettest County in the World.” That the ’30s-set story has its roots in truth makes an already forceful tale even more compelling.

Shia LaBeouf is Jack Bondurant, younger brother to notorious Blue Ridge bootleggers Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke). Their booming backwoods business attracts the attention of a new deputy, Rakes (Guy Pearce), who insists on his cut.

While Forrest and Howard get involved in an increasingly vicious battle with Rakes, Jack is busy figuring out his future path. Will he settle down with preacher’s daughter Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) or join forces with legendary gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman)?

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Just as Jack is coming of age, LaBeouf clearly intends for “Lawless” to signal his own professional maturation. He doesn’t disappoint, building on the promise he’s already shown in other non-“Transformers” films. But the indisputable star is the chameleonlike Hardy, whose outsized talent and charisma will surely lead him up Oscar’s carpet one day.

That won’t happen yet, though. At heart, this Prohibition yarn is really just a genre picture done better than most. And it’s far from flawless. Pearce makes an uncharacteristic misstep by turning Rakes into a cartoonish sadist, while Jessica Chastain is both exploited and underused in an ornamental role as Forrest’s girlfriend. The taut script takes a few unnecessary shortcuts, and the energy flags a bit before the finale.

Still, the action is, overall, as exciting as the primary performances are impressive. “Lawless” is unlikely to be one of the strongest contenders of autumn, but it may be the best to come out of August.

John Hillcoat’s Lawless is far closer in spirit to his Outback Western, The Proposition, than his more recent, harrowing film, The Road. Lawless is based on the avowedly true story of the Bondurant brothers in Franklin Country, Virginia, running illicit liquor throughout the prohibition era from their own stills way up in the hills, and fighting battles with corrupt cops and feds, all greedy for a slice of the hooch profits.

Lawless is a handsome-looking film, with a reasonably winning lead performance from Shia LaBeouf. But it’s basically a smug, empty exercise in macho-sentimental violence in which we are apparently expected to root for the lovable good ol’ boys, as they mumble, shoot, punch and stab. Our heroes manage to ensnare the affections of preposterously exquisite young women, and the final flurry of self-adoring nostalgia is borderline-nauseating.

Tom Hardy plays Forrest Bondurant, a great impassive lunk of a man: tough, grizzled, though with Hardy’s weirdly sensuous lips. He is feared and respected for the unhesitating brutality with which he protects his bootlegging business. Jason Clarke plays Howard Bondurant, his more obviously crazy hillbilly brother, given to getting high on his own supply, and to alerting Forrest to cop raids by flinging back his head and howling like a dog. And lastly, there is nervous, quick-witted young Jack Bondurant, nicely played by LaBeouf, touchy about the fact that he is not as tough as his siblings, and eager to prove himself. The brothers run a kind of roadhouse-cum-gas-station very like the kind of establishment you see at the beginning of scary movies — and entertainingly portrayed in Joss Whedon’s The Cabin In The Woods.

It is pantywaist Jack who sees how their business could be opened up by selling to the big-hitting mobster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), and their new riches inflame the crooked federal agent Charlie Rakes, played by Guy Pearce — a ridiculous pantomime baddie who dyes his hair and wears swish cologne. Meanwhile, Forrest and Jack manage to attract the admiration of two women played by Jessica Chastian and Mia Wasikowska, who shimmer adorably onto the screen turned out as if for a Vogue fashion shoot.

Hillcoats puts it all together capably enough, but the supposed heroism and stoicism of alpha-bro Forrest, as he refuses point-blank to pay off the corrupt feds, is pretty ridiculous and suspect. As with all movies “based on a true story”, you wonder what the true story actually is. The final credits disclose that all this was known as the “Franklin County Conspiracy”. We are asked to believe that the Bondurant brothers did not need to conspire to survive. I wonder.

The violence is gruesome, and perpetual, with a particularly horrible tar-and-feather scene — and yet nothing somehow seems to be at stake for anyone, and the brutality seems to be there simply to underline how tough and real it all is. Tom Hardy deploys his stolid screen presence, and Gary Oldman has an interesting, but all too brief cameo appearance as the gangster of whom everyone is in awe. But the whole thing adds up to nothing at all, and leaves nothing behind but a nasty moonshine hangover.

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