The Great Depression was a terrible time for Americans. But for Hollywood and the the world of literature, it was the greatest thing to happen since sound or Garbo.

Out of that terrible era of universal hunger and hard times, out of the mouths and lives of the countless poor, came some of the greatest films since Hollywood began.

I give you all of Steinbeck’s work brought alive by John Ford’s “Grapes of Wrath,” and every movie Warner Brothers made with Cagney Bogart and E.G. Robinson.

Those were low times with high notes, and they didn’t stop there. OMG, they kept coming: “Road to Perdition” The Coen Brothers brilliant “Oh Brother Where Art Thou,” Nicholson’s “Ironweed,” and of course the great “Bonnie and Clyde.” Will that period ever run out of gas? Apparently not.

This year we get another big bang-and-stab walk through the hard times where hard times were eased by a terrible Republican idea, and it starts with a capital P and that stands for prohibition.

It’s 2012, and director John Hillcoat (“The Proposition,” “The Road”) and songwriter/scripter Nick Cave take us down a long country road to visit with the brothers Bondurant of Franklin County, Virginia, circa 1931.

The story is taken from a scion of the infamous family, a grandson of Jack Bondurant “The Wettest County in America,” and indeed it was. Everybody in Franklin County was running a still somewhere. So many, it seems that the night woods glistened with a hundred fires as they churned out moonshine.

The brothers include Forrest (Tom Hardy who played Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises”) who is the eldest, the brightest and whose personal furnace is well stoked. Forrest doesn’t shoot flames from his mouth, but his incipient rage can be smelled throughout the valley where the word is “Don’t mess with Forrest.” Forrest just wants to run his little bar and gas station, sell some moonshine to neighbors and let the world pass by.

The brothers include Forrest (Tom Hardy who played Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises”) who is the eldest, the brightest and whose personal furnace is well stoked. Forrest doesn’t shoot flames from his mouth, but his incipient rage can be smelled throughout the valley where the word is “Don’t mess with Forrest.” Forrest just wants to run his little bar and gas station, sell some moonshine to neighbors and let the world pass by.

There is brother Howard (Jason Clarke) who is only three inches short of a happy-go-lucky half-wit. When Forrest gets mad, Howard roars out of the family cave and hurts people.

And then there is little Jack, (the ubiquitous Shia LaBeouf) the runt of the litter, the baby brother, the one everybody loves. But Jack, like all litter runts, keeps getting himself in the middle of trouble and has to have his brothers fetch him out. And, of course, there will be trouble.

Trouble comes to town in the hulking, evil form of Chicago’s gangster crew who smells money in the moonshine business. Chicago is epitomized here by gangster Gary Oldman, playing Floyd Banner. But Banner is a go-along, get-along boy who is willing to share profits.

Then there is evil incarnate in the slick, dapper Charlie Rakes (the great Guy Pearce), a sado-masochist pervert with a bloodlust and a neatness hangup. Charlie has been sent down by the state law enforcers as a “Special Deputy” to shut down the shine business. Where Hardy plays his Forrest close to the vest, and at times almost inaudibly, Charlie struts his stuff in snake-like, over-the-top, hissed-out major chords. You know from the start that these two boys are going to light up the valley.

We know that where there is a Robin, there is a Marion, a Rick and Ilsa, and for Clyde there is a Bonnie. This team gives us two: we get Maggie (the incomparable Jessica Chastain) a Chicago weary, former fan dancer, who has come down to look for a job and some relative peace. Forrest hires her to tend bar. Smell that fuse burning?

The other sweeter note is Bertha, the preacher’s daughter (a glowing-from-within Mia Wasikowska, a name spell-checkers go crazy with. The honey sweetness of Bertha naturally attracts sweet baby Jack and we know how that’s gonna work out.

Yes, we pretty much know how all the ingredients are going to interact because they are timeless. There is goodness and there is evil, there is the man with the gun over there, and the maiden in the woods. It’s literature, and it’s Hollywood.

Its strength is the excellent cast. A movie with Chastain and Pearce, Wasikowska and Oldman just can’t be a clunker. And then Cave’s screenplay hits all the right notes and the music. OMG, the score. All of the original music by Cave and Warren Ellis is worth the price of the ticket. It smells and tastes of dusty back roads, fried squirrel meat, mildew bars and Johnny Cash’s funeral. It’s to-die-for and a whole lot of folks in “Lawless” do. There will be throats cut, backs broken, gunfights in the snow and the dust, and just when you think there’s a happy ending, it’s smudged with a touch of life. “Lawless” isn’t “Bonnie and Cyde.” It isn’t perfect, but it’s fun — an action-adventure with a big touch of country. And of course, Jessica Chastain. Kudos to Benoit Delhomme for incredible beauty and to Dylan Tichenor for knowing how to edit. “Lawless” isn’t flawless, but it’s beautiful to watch.

 

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