The Bondurant Brothers were notorious bootleggers during the Prohibition era.
Their story is told in Lawless, a film set in the 1930s in Franklin, Va. This is a terrific (albeit hugely violent) yarn that's both a crime drama and a coming-of-age tale.
Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf) narrates the beginning of the movie, explaining that his older brothers survived the First World War and the influenza that killed their parents, events that contributed to the myth that the Bondurant boys could not be killed.
Older brothers Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) run the family moonshine business, while Jack scrambles to catch up. He's younger and far more sensitive than his brothers, but not without resources: Jack and his friend Cricket (Dane DeHaan) work on a superior brand of moonshine.
Conflict arrives in the person of Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a detective from Chicago who sees the Virginia locals as hicks to be controlled. He and several other lawmen want a share of the bootlegging profits and quickly intimidate every moonshine manufacturer in the county.
Every one but the Bondurants, that is. Their resistance to Rakes and his ilk only increases the tension in the story, and as it is, most of Lawless is already awash in dread.
From the time Rakes first attacks Jack, beating him severely as a 'message' to take back to his brother Forrest, a final confrontation between the brothers and the newcomers is inevitable.
As Forrest, Hardy moves quietly through the narrative, a unflappable presence whose brute strength and controlled violence simmer just below his every solemn pronouncement. The only person in the story stronger than Forrest is Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a woman who leaves the city to take a job at the Bondurants' backwoods bar. Maggie is quiet and completely non-violent, but she is fearless in the same way Forrest is. The women in the film represent the only hope for positive change of any sort.
LaBeouf is impressive as the kid brother dancing as fast as he can to catch up with his famous older siblings. It's through Jack's eyes that we meet a famous gangster (Gary Oldman) encounter first love (Mia Wasikowska) and experience the sort of eye-for-an-eye philosophy that controls the county.
Lawless is steeped in testosterone, a story full of wild characters and wilder events, and it's a very satisfying two hours at the movies. The film is based on The Wettest County in the World, Matt Bondurant's book about his grandfather and his great-uncles and their bootlegging days during the Depression.