Moonshine makers and bootleggers usually make good subjects for wacky adventure comedies, but there was a serious and violent side to the underground industry that thrived during the Prohibition years.
Writer Matt Bondurant came upon a mother-lode of rich material when he discovered his grandfather, Jack, was one of three Bondurant brothers who were successful in the mooshine business in Franklin County, Virginia, when the biggest issues facing the country were Prohibition and the Great Depression.
As has been chronicled many times, the ban of production and sales of alcoholic beverages led to the unintended consequences of flourishing organized crime and corruption among law enforcement officials. The Bondurant brothers stood out as one group that refused to give a bigger piece of their action to law enforcement people who had more clout than the local gentry.
Matt Bondurant seized upon this rich family history to write the novel “The Wettest County in the World.” Nick Cave, who is a musician, actor and writer, adapted the novel to the screen, whereupon it was directed as “Lawless” by John Hillcoat (“The Road”).
Tom Hardy — now without his Bane mask from “The Dark Knight Rises” — Jason Clarke and Shia Labeouf play the Bondurant brothers, who in the early 1930s own a little eatery in the backwoods of Virginia but reap more profits from their moonshine operation. They have a cozy relationship with the local police, keeping those boys happy by supplying them with the liquor.
Hardy is Forrest, the head of the family. He is stoic and a man of few words. He is a man who would prefer to avoid violence but will not hesitate when it is necessary. He is disciplined and knows the value of feeling fear to keep the edge.
Howard (Clarke) is the real muscle in the family. His own drinking habit can make him unreliable, but when he gets tanked up, he can be a mean drunk, which can come in handy.
LaBeouf is Jack, the runt of the family. Much like Michael Corleone in “The Godfather,” he is not expected to play a vital role in the family business, relegated to being a driver.
The status quo is shaken up when a special deputy is brought in by a crooked district attorney. Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) is the deputy drafted from Chicago and he rolls into Franklin County with a “there’s a new sheriff in town” swagger and lays it out: bootleggers must ante up their law enforcement payoffs or be put out of business.
Forrest, who is convinced Bondurants are indestructible, tells Rakes to get lost, which is equivalent to saying, give it your best shot.
Jack, meanwhile, has aspirations of being more involved with the bootlegging business. Thanks to his friend Cricket (Dane Dehaan), he does prove worthy, as Cricket helps them build a huge distillery deep in the woods where Rakes cannot find it. Cricket also soups up the Bondurant delivery vehicle so it can outrun the police.
Jessica Chastain (“The Help”) plays Maggie Beauford, a young woman who has fled the fast life in Chicago for a more sublime existence in Virginia. Forrest hires her to help run the eatery, and he soon finds himself encountering something new and alien to him: falling in love.
Jack, meanwhile, is drawn to Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowsks), the daughter of a local preacher.
Jack also manages to initiate a cordial relationship with a renowned crime lord, Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), whose screen time is riveting but way too short. Jack scores a good business deal with Floyd and the Bondurant family’s fortunes grow even more.
But Jack’s pursuit of Bertha has him lowering his guard, giving Rakes and his men an edge they soon exploit.
The story arc of bootleggers against corrupt authorities is predictable. Posturing and threats soon escalate into violence, and almost always somebody innocent gets caught in the crossfire, which in turn galvanizes the victims to strike back.
Although Jack is the main character in “Lawless,” Hardy’s Forrest steals the movie. Hardy seems to be channeling Marlon Brando with his grunting, mumbling delivery. He firmly believes he cannot be killed, and by golly, he proves it throughout the movie.
LaBeouf’s Jack is an exasperating character, often naively stumbling into trouble. When Forrest is prompted to slap him around, it is hard not to think Jack deserves even more of a beating from his brother.
Pearce oozes slimy corruption as Charlie Rakes, a despicable character who abuses power and is greedy in the name of law and order. Of course he becomes increasingly evil and becomes completely unhinged in the final confrontation.
While the story unfolds in a familiar pattern, “Lawless,” driven by some keen performances, surprises in who survives and who does not. The Bonderants were breaking a well-meaning but foolish law, but their own code of honor versus that of authorities easily made them the good guys.
September birthdays: Some grand people approach or hit their 90s and beyond
Ground-breaking TV funnyman Sid Caesar will be 90 on Sept. 22. Also hitting 90, on Sept. 16, will be Janis Paige. Mickey Rooney turns 92 on Sept. 16. Jayne Meadows, widow of Steve Allen, will be 92 on Sept. 27.
In their 80s: Lauren Bacall, 88 on Sept. 16; Angie Dickinson, 81 on Sept. 30; Anita Ekberg, 81 on Sept. 29; Larry Hagman, 81 on Sept. 21; Earl Holliman, 84 on Sept. 11; ian Holm, 81 on Sept. 12; Anne Meara, mother of Ben Stiller, will be 83 on Sept. 20; Bob Newhart, 83 on Sept. 5; and Adam West, the TV Batman, will be 84 on Sept. 19.
Milestone birthdays: Lacy Chabert, 30 on Sept. 30; Lola Falana, 70 on Sept. 11; Kristy McNichol, 50 on Sept. 11; Ian McShane, 70 on Sept. 29; Rob Morrow, 50 on Sept. 21; Gwynyth Paltrow, 40 on Sept. 28, Nia Vardalos 50 on Sept. 24.
Will Smith, 44 on Sept. 25, and Jada Pinkett Smith, 41 on Sept. 18, share September birthdays. And of course, Michael Douglas, 68, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, 43, celebrate on Sept. 25.
Other notables: Franky Avalon, 72 (9/18), Brigitte Bardot, 78 (9/8), Jacqueline Bisset, 68 (9/13), Wilford Brimley, 78 (9/27), Harry Connick Jr. 45 (9/11), Marion Cottilard 37 (9/30) Brian DePalma 72 (9/11), Elvia, Mistress of the Dark (Cassandra Peterson) 61 (9/17), Colin Firth 52 (9/10), James Gandolfini 51 (9/18), Hugh Grant 52 (9/9), Linda Gray 72 (9/12), Mark Hamill 61 (9/25).
Linda Hamilton 56 (9/26), Mark Harmon 61 (9/2), Salma Hayek 46 (9/2), Jennifer Hudson 31 (9/12), Jeremy Irons 64 (9/19), Amy Irving 59 (9/10), Tommy Lee Jones 66 (9/15), Michael Keaton 61 (9/9), Richard Kiel 73 (9/13), Melissa Leo 52 (9/14), Sophia Loren 78 (9/20), Amy Madigan 62 (9/11), Michael Madsen 54 (9/25), David McCallum 79 (9/19), Bill Murray 62 (9/21), Sam Neill 65 (9/14), Olivia Newton-John 64 (9/26).
Ryan Phillipe 38 (9/10), Amy Poehler 41 (9/16), Keanu Reeves 48 (9/2), Emmy Rossum 26 (9/12) Mickey Rourke 56 (9/16), Adam Sandler 46 (9/9), Charlie Sheen 47 (9/3), Mira Sorvino 45 (9/25), Eric Stoltz 51 (9/30), Oliver Stone 66 (9/15), Jennifer Tilly 54 (9/15), Lily Tomlin 73 (9/1), Naomi Watts 44 (9/28), Raquel Welch 72 (9/5), Michelle Williams 32 (9/9).