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MOVIE REVIEW: Shia LeBeouf, Tom Hardy make rooting for the bad guy easy with ‘Lawless’

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(L-R) JASON CLARKE, TOM HARDY and SHIA LaBEOUF star in LAWLESS

Lawless

(R)

4 stars

This same exact thing happened last year on Labor Day weekend. A studio founded by the Weinstein brothers released a movie ("The Debt") featuring Jessica Chastain that was seen by too few people and it summarily died a quick box-office death. Because this film also stars Tom Hardy -- the villain in "The Dark Knight Rises" -- it could somewhat help "Lawless" a bit but its unlikely and a real shame. This movie should have came out in the late fall.

"Lawless" is the second effort from screenwriter/composer Nick Cave and director John Hillcoat who crafted the equally intense and unforgiving 2005 down under western "The Proposition." Because both men are from Australia, there was an astonishing level of realism found in "The Proposition" -- a fictional tale of three on-the-lam outlaw Irish brothers.

Based on the nonfiction novel "The Wettest County in the World" by Matt Bondurant, "Lawless" is also about three lawbreaking brothers who made their livings as bootleggers in the Virginia Appalachian Mountain region during Prohibition. As Bondurant is the grandson of one of the brothers, Cave had a prime piece of source material from which to draw and before the opening credits are even over, the level of authenticity becomes palpable.

Oldest brother Forrest (Hardy) is the emotionally detached leader and the brains of the outfit. His suffer-no-fools mindset and get-it-done work ethic has made him a living legend and garnered him the unqualified respect of his competitors, the look-the-other-way local lawmen and anyone previously stupid enough to get in his way.

Forrest gets tested with the arrival of a politician whose unofficial enforcer Charlie (Guy Pearce) is a more refined yet equally ruthless version of himself. With his pale skin and severe features that include shaved eyebrows and an extra-wide part in his hair, Charlie proves he's not fooling around when he thrashes youngest brother Jack (Shia LeBeouf) within an inch of his life. The "good" brother in "The Proposition," Pearce delivers an Oscar-caliber performance for what is easily the most menacing and loathsome antagonist thus far in 2012 -- and that includes Hardy's muffled turn in "The Dark Knight Rises."

Eager to avenge the beating and prove he's more than just a driver and the runt of the family litter, Jack sells some stock moonshine to Floyd (Gary Oldman), another Chicago mobster with far better social skills and business acumen than Charlie. Jack gains Forrest's grudging respect but quickly loses it when -- while trying to impress the daughter (Mia Wasikowska) of the local preacher -- he draws undue attention with the purchase of flashy clothes and a new car.

Not given nearly enough screen time, Chastain is, as usual, more than able to make an indelible impression as Maggie, a girl from an unspecified big city who prefers the simplicity of a rural lifestyle. Without stooping to thread-worn romantic cliches and narrative crutches, Chastain and Cave deftly chip away at Forrest's previously impenetrable steely veneer and warm him up just a tad. Chastain is by far the most talented actress to come down the pike since Meryl Streep and will also appear later this year with a larger role in "Zero Dark Thirty," the thriller from director Kathryn Bigelow about the assassination of Osama bin Laden.

Knowing that "Lawless" is based on real events comes in especially handy during a critical scene that takes place late in the third act. If this was a work of fiction, said scene would come off as ludicrous, overblown and completely unbelievable. Hillcoat could have probably let it fall to the cutting-room floor and not lost an iota of impact but leaving it in -- and by also including a finishing sequence of scenes set a few years later -- only lends the picture even more mystic gravitas.

In more ways than one, "Lawless" is reminiscent of "Bonnie & Clyde" and a scant few other Prohibition era-based dramas. The criminals are the good guys and we desperately want them to succeed. The Bondurant boys don't want to hurt anyone; they're just trying to make a living. They put a strong emphasis on family and look out for their own. They're not even close to being the typical ideal protagonists, yet are more than proficient at getting us to unquestionably rally around their illegal and questionably moral cause. Rarely has rooting for lawbreakers been as thoroughly rewarding and life affirming as it is in "Lawless." (Weinstein Co.)