Before strapping on the gimp mask in The Dark Knight Rises, and before terrifying/thrilling everyone in Bronson, British actor Tom Hardy was winning modeling contests and playing Patrick Stewart’s shaven, sniveling clone in Star Trek: Nemesis. Not the most auspicious beginning, and one that seems even stranger when watching Lawless, the latest from The Proposition and The Road director John Hillcoat. All but unrecognizable, Hardy shuffles and grunts his way though 1931 Virginia, where he and his brothers Jack (Shia LaBeouf) and Howard (Jason Clarke) run moonshine. Hardy, predictably, is fantastic—taciturn and grim until he’s pushed, at which point he becomes all speed and brass knuckles—but Lawless is Jack’s story. Like a backwoods The Godfather, we follow Jack as he clumsily tries to impress his tough brothers—a challenge made harder by the arrival of corrupt deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce). Throw in a preacher’s daughter (Mia Wasikowska), a woman fleeing her Chicago past (Jessica Chastain), and crime boss Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), and everything in Lawless is poised to blow like an amateur still.
Lawless is confident and stern and beautiful, and punctuated with bursts of breathtakingly cruel violence; like The Proposition, it’s written by Nick Cave, and it shares that film’s tendency to work at such a heightened level that its intensity becomes almost comforting. (Until people start bleeding. Then it gets… more intense.) While Hardy’s coiled menace is the most memorable part of the film, it’s LaBeouf who holds the thing together, which is a weird thing to type. Earnest and stupid, Jack and his attempts to make a name for himself are a surprisingly sweet counterpoint to the rest of the film’s bigger-than-life characters.
Which reminds me that Lawless is great, but not perfect: The preening, sneering Pearce is a blast to watch, but too cartoonish to be a real threat, and while it’d be a stretch to call the film light, it lacks the relentless nihilism of The Proposition and The Road. That comes as a relief—Lawless makes bootlegging look fun enough to make you wish it was still a valid career path—but Hillcoat seems most at home in the shadows. Lawless’s best and most powerful moments are its most unexpected, its most desperate, its most bloody.