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‘Lawless' captivates with bare-knuckles drama

Aug. 30, 2012 - 01:32PM   |   Last Updated: Aug. 30, 2012 - 01:32PM  |  
Lawless
Lawless: The true story of the infamous Bondurant Brothers: bootlegging siblings who made a run for the American Dream in Prohibition-era Virginia.
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Shia LaBeouf, right, appears in a scene from "Lawless." (Richard Foreman Jr. / The Weinstein Company via th)

Lawless

Rated R for no-holds-barred violence, brief nudity and moonshine guzzling.

If you lived in Prohibition-era Franklin County, Va., you could hock a stream of tobacco juice in any direction and the odds were good that you'd score a direct hit on a moonshine still.

At least, that's the impression given by the new film "Lawless," the story of a vicious backwoods war over that precious white lightning.

Adapted by Nick Cave from Matt Bondurant's 2008 book "The Wettest County in the World" — a fictionalized account of the war and the role Bondurant's forebears played in it — the film packs a punch as explosive as the high-octane brew it honors.

And that's despite starring Shia LaBeouf.

He plays Jack Bondurant, baby brother to family leader Forrest (Tom Hardy) and brutish middle sibling Howard (Jason Clarke).

In a time and place where everyone's cooking the juice out of whatever's handy — turnips, pumpkins, apricots, potatoes, corn meal, you name it — the Bondurants rule.

They become so successful, in fact, that they draw the attention of some crooked Chicago feds, led by Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), who want to muscle in and take over the action. And the battle lines are drawn for a fine Great Depression variation on the Gunfight at the OK Corral.

It's a straightforward, unvarnished premise, but in the hands of Cave and director John Hillcoat ("The Road," "The Proposition"), that's actually the appeal — men finding out what they're made of, and what they're capable of, in dire circumstances.

LaBeouf's character is never far from the action, but the true studs here are Hardy and Pearce.

Hardy is a riot as Forrest, a visceral force of nature who believes he can't be killed — and just may be right. He's capable of near-eloquence when the mood strikes, but usually prefers to communicate in amusing little grunts.

Pearce tears it up as Rakes, a city-slick dandy who waxes his eyebrows, pomades his hair and nurses a manic cleanliness fetish — then explodes in rage when someone calls him a "nance."

I don't mean to harsh on LaBeouf, who's not a bad actor. And to be fair, his character is supposed to be a callow youth.

But up against pros like Hardy and Pearce — not to mention Gary Oldman as big-time gangster Floyd Banner, hitting like a sledgehammer in two brief scenes — LaBeouf comes off as almost weightless.

This gravitas gap is reflected in the film's two female characters, former Chicago dance-hall girl Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain) and preacher's daughter Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska).

Both are mostly superfluous to the story, written in mainly to give the menfolk something to focus on between violent confrontations. But where Chastain strikes some visceral sparks with the flinty Hardy, Wasikowska's efforts to fake like she's smitten with LaBeouf fall a bit short of convincing.

Still, Cave and Hillcoat power the story forward with a sure grasp of the material's core appeal: its celebration of some of the most storied American character traits.

In this case, those would be brass-knuckled entrepreneurship, dogged industriousness and the rough-hewn, pioneer spirit of individualism that makes the concept of living by another's leave simply unfathomable.

But let Forrest explain it: "I'm a Bondurant. We don't lay down for nobody."

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