It’s a wonder anyone survived Prohibition. If Hollywood is any indicator (The Untouchables, The Public Enemy, Some Like it Hot) everyone had a Tommy gun, every police department was mostly corrupt, and weapons-grade alcohol flowed freely.

The same holds true (and then some) in Lawless, the latest collaboration between director John Hillcoat (The Road) and screenwriter Nick Cave (yes, of ‘and the Bad Seeds’ fame).

Set in the early 1930’s in backwoods Virginia, Lawless is the hyper-violent, gritty story of the real-life Bondurant brothers, who made moonshining the family business. Their story is a fascinating one, to be sure, and the top-drawer cast is able to swoop in and redeem the uneven, rambling script.

Forrest (Tom Hardy) is the oldest brother, running the show with an even temper and a quiet demeanor, and speaking primarily in grunts. Loose cannon Howard (Jason Clarke) seems to care more about taste-testing the product than selling it, and the runt of the litter, naive Jack (Shia LeBeouf), is happiest when he can spend the profits on slick suits and shiny new cars.

Business is good; the local deputies are their best customers, and the competition learned its place years ago. But when a new, corrupt Commonwealth’s Attorney comes to power, he claims a piece of the action and sends his deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) to collect. As sadistic as he is nattily dressed, Rakes doesn’t seem to be happy unless he’s making someone bleed.

Forrest refuses to kowtow to Rakes’ demands, though, and the Appalachian Mountains soon become a battleground between wrong and more wrong.

Hillcoat does an admirable job bringing the 1930s to life; his attention to detail is spot-on, from the tin signs lining the walls of the Bondurant’s bar to the twine holding the brothers’ clothes together. His pacing, though, isn’t as successful. He holds on to many shots longer than he needs to and also offers up a few too many beauty shots of the Blue Ridge Mountains, detracting from the tension and paranoia that should carry the movie. The violent scenes are brutal and captivating, but the non-violent ones tend to drag.

Cave’s screenplay is likewise a bit slow and disjointed, leaving little room for the narrative to find its way.

Fortunately, virtually every member of the cast is at the top of his or her game, saving Lawless from being just another second-tier gangster flick. Hardy contrasts his turn as Bane in The Dark Night Rises with quiet, soft-spoken authority and just a hint of vulnerability. LeBeouf is finally putting his silly Transformers days behind him, and Pearce’s brilliant performance as Rakes provides us with perhaps the most menacing and memorable villain of the year; we may well hear his name come time for the Oscar nods.

The movie’s two females, Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska, make the most of criminally small roles, as does Gary Oldman as mobster Floyd Banner; he deserves his own spin-off.

Lawless doesn’t occupy the same rare air as gangster classics Scarface and Miller’s Crossing, but it doesn’t do any harm to the genre either.

3.5/5 stars