Metacritic sees things differently, but go ahead and read it here that "Lawless" is the best major-studio movie of the summer. In plotting, performances and, yes, its high-quality violence, you get what you came for.
It's the early 1930s, and rural Virginia is overrun with bootleggers who get along just fine selling hooch to the local sheriffs and pedaling jars and crates out of the backs of rickety trucks. The boys with the best wares are the Bondurants — Howard, Forrest and young Jack — and life for them is rough but lucrative until the bootlegging gangs and law enforcement with Chicago ties begin encroaching.
A Palme D'or nominee at Cannes, "Lawless" rings most authentic in its characterizations. Tom Hardy does more with monosyllabic grunts than should be possible. The ringleader of the bootlegging family, he's rumored to be indestructible, having dodged death on a sinking ship and during an epidemic. But far from the hulking, loquacious Bane that Hardy crafted for "The Dark Knight Rises," his Forrest shuffles and mutters, in part because he finds few reasons to rush and in part because brass knuckles rocketing out from a quiet man's cardigan pocket carry a pronounced element of surprise.
Shia LaBeouf's name tops the movie poster, and as the younger, more callow brother, he's a proper guide for the audience on our way into this shaggy, brutal subculture. But Hardy's the pole star — principled, dark and ferocious. Guy Pearce serves as his foil, an equally dark and ferocious but deliciously unscrupulous Chicago lawman named Charlie Rakes. Perfumed, clean-shaven and nattily dressed, Rakes makes enemies of the Bondurants when he spearheads a crackdown on the booze-running. Forrest won't play ball, so when Rakes finds Jack he works the little brother over with a shotgun barrel and his elegantly gloved fists. After that, you know someone isn't leaving this movie alive, but since the Bondurant boys believe themselves to be indestructible, it could be hard biscuits for Rakes.
Hollywood loves to imagine country folk as fidgety, fast-jabbering yokels, auctioneers in waiting. Mercifully, between screenwriter Nick Cave and the family-historical novel by Matt Bondurant, the film has a beautiful ear for the woods. No one in "Lawless" gets over-talky, and at every junction where some hack might try to evoke MacArthur and speechify, the Bondurant boys almost always say less. Even the score, a mostly delicate compilation of bluegrass and folk, shows a refreshing restraint. Aside from a short montage that escalates the second act into the third, at no point does "Lawless" devolve into a redneck music video. Director John Hillcoat ("The Road") is content to err on the side of bleak.
The cast contains precisely zero weak links. With all of 10 on-screen minutes, tops, Gary Oldman shines as a Tommy-gun-toting Chicago gangster. Mia Wasikowskia, as a preacher's daughter and the object of Jack's affections, balances her filial piety against her fascination with this brash young bootlegger. Howard drinks constantly — and in Jason Clarke's sleepy-wet eyes, rather than some put-on swaying or slurring, he appears genuinely sauced. In fact, practically everyone actually looks like 1930s Appalachia swished 'em and spat 'em out — dirty, drawn, sunken-eyed and ragged. The only character you might crack your tooth on is Jessica Chastain's mysterious redheaded bombshell who arrives in the moonshiningest county in Virginia looking for peace and quiet. Overlook the absurdity of this baffling decision by an otherwise canny lady and you'll get through "Lawless" in better shape than most everyone in it.