Historical authenticity and pulp fiction blend nicely in "Lawless," a lush-looking drama full of blazing Tommy guns, fast jalopies, brutish men and delicate women. There's serious bloodshed and bleak philosophy, made thoroughly enjoyable by a fine cast of glamor-pusses. Consider "Lawless" an early turning leaf of the high-quality fall season.
Based on "The Wettest County in the World," Matt Bondurant's novel inspired by his Virginia ancestors, "Lawless" stars Shia LaBeouf as Jack, the youngest of three bootlegging brothers. As the film opens, in 1931, their operation is running smoothly: The cops are customers, and gang warfare remains limited to the cities (Gary Oldman plays the pinstriped Floyd Banner). That all changes when the dandyish Chicago lawman Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce) appoints himself king. In short order, throats are slashed, skulls are smashed, and body-parts become gag-gifts.
LaBeouf, currently between "Transformers" cakewalks, does solid work as a soft kid who dresses sharp to impress the preacher's daughter, Bertha (Mia Wasikowska). Upstaging him, though, is Tom Hardy as Forrest Bondurant, an endearing bone-crusher who gets all flustered around sultry Maggie (Jessica Chastain, literally and figuratively smoking). Jason Clarke ("Public Enemies") plays the middle brother, Howard, whose violence is fueled by his own product; Dane DeHaan ("Chronicle") is appealing as the Bondurants' faithful alchemist.
Screenwriter-composer Nick Cave may not always see the humor in these hard- boiled Faulknerisms, but director John Hillcoat, cutting loose after his gray and grim "The Road," clearly does. The proof is in Pearce's wonderfully nutso performance as Rakes. Mincing, menacing, dressed like a Jazz Age vampire and hissing like a Nazi scientist ("Ooh, zis is terrible!"), Pearce handily hijacks the movie and flies it straight into the fun zone.
A poignant coda attempts to provide gravitas, but really, who needs it? "Lawless" is well-made Hollywood entertainment, which is good enough during these dog days of summer.
PLOT In Prohibition-era Virginia, a trio of moonshining brothers battles the law. RATING R
PLAYING AT Area theaters
BOTTOM LINE Fall comes early with this high-quality Hollywood entertainment full of shootouts, sex and handsome period costumes.