When you’re in need of a stiff drink, you want the real thing and not a cheap off-shoot. Of course, living in a certain time and place when that’s not possible, sometimes you just have to settle. In the same way that moonshine isn’t quite as high-quality as true whiskey, the gangster saga Lawless just doesn’t get you drunk the right way.

In the early 1930s, Prohibition laws are still in full swing across the United States, meaning the flow of booze comes from independent, illegal suppliers. Among the bootleggers around the nation are the Bondurant brothers of Franklin County, Va. The eldest, Forrest (Tom Hardy), is the brains, Howard (Jason Clarke) is the muscle, and the youngest of them, Jack (Shia LaBeouf), simply does what he’s told, though he’s ready to prove his mettle should the need arise. Local law enforcement has never given them a problem, willing to let the trio do as they please, but that arrangement is about to end. Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) has been sent from Chicago to curb the running of liquor, though his shakedown attempt doesn’t sit well with Forrest, who makes it clear he won’t stand for anyone trying to change how they’ve done things for years. As attacks from both sides start to hinder the Bondurants’ livelihood, Jack takes it upon himself to work out a new deal across state lines, which proves more profitable than anything they’ve done. But with the family business growing more and more, it only means they have more to lose, at least if Rakes has any say.

Bless LaBeouf’s heart — no matter how much he may try to play bad boy grown-up roles, we’ll probably never stop seeing him as the kid from the Disney Channel. At least here, he’s in his element as the runt of the litter who’s in way over his head when he steps up to the major leagues of the gang world. He may not be that tall, but Hardy is typically towering as the leader of the three siblings, the kind of guy you can look up to not because he’s much of a role model but because he’ll knock you on your butt in the blink of an eye. Still, as with any of the actor’s performances, the bravado shown by Forrest is mingled with a deep humanity of someone who’s faced death time and again and always survived a little bit wiser, though happy to reinforce the regional legend that he’s indestructible.

In these kinds of movies, there’s always some lucky lady who can tame the savage hick, in this case two of the finest actresses around today, with Mia Wasikowska as a timid preacher’s daughter who catches Jack’s eye and Jessica Chastain as Maggie, a big city girl looking for a quiet life working in the bar run by the Bondurant boys, getting involved with Forrest along the way. Neither of the women here bears much importance in the story, even if they both fit in well. The one who’s truly wasted is Gary Oldman playing a hot-blooded Chicago racketeer who goes into business with Jack and then seemingly disappears. Dane DeHaan, who broke out in this year’s Chronicle, gives a memorable turn as Jack’s gimpy associate Cricket, the man behind the stills, while an eyebrowless Guy Pearce, whose appearance has never been the same in two separate films, holds nothing back as Charlie Racks, who may dress and speak like a dandy but has no qualms about throwing down like a backwoods bruiser if that’s what it takes to gain control of the hooch industry.

The years 1920 to 1933 provide potent material for any crime drama, particularly one that focuses intensely on the production of liquor and the nation’s lackluster attempts to stop it. With any such feature, it’s crucial to care as much about the characters as the subject, and the Bondurants just don’t get it done. Based on Matt Bondurant’s book and personal family history The Wettest County in the World, the story offers no real explanation of why the clan gets into this line of work, leaving us to make the assumption that as hillbillies, that’s just the way things have always been for them. OK, fair enough, but the spotlight shines awfully bright on the dirt roads of Franklin County considering what else is going on in the rest of the country, leaving protagonist Jack oblivious to the Great Depression hardships while he spends his new wealth on cars and suits. You’d think people in rural Virginia would be aware that things are tough all over, but whatever… The plot unfolds slowly, but at least we’re able to drink in the woodsy surroundings with Benoît Delhomme’s showy cinematography and some good period costuming. A few bloody elements like bullet-riddled cars, slit throats and a mouthy underling who gets his face bashed in with a shovel by Oldman, also remind you that despite all the attempts at peaceable business, this is still more or less a gangster film.

Lawless may as well have stuck to its original title, because the name it wound up with in the end is ultimately a misnomer. A movie that plays by the rules can still entertain, but going somewhere more daring with material like this and letting it brew could have only resulted in top-shelf shine.

Rating: 2.5 out of 4 stars

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