Based on a book inspired by true events (though how much of this is actually true is debatable), this is the story of Jack Bondurant and his brothers Howard and Forrest who ran a profitable business as bootleggers with their homemade moonshine throughout Prohibition in Franklin County, Virginia.
The film follows them as they struggle to keep their business alive in the wake of the wrath of a corrupt and brutal special deputy named Charley Rakes, who will stop at nothing to get a cut of the locals's profits.
Shia LaBeouf is good as Jack, the youngest, whose grandson wrote the book that musician Nick Cave adapted this screenplay from. Yeah, the same Nick Cave from the group The Bad Seeds. He's not just a musician, having authored a couple of novels, and one other screenplay besides this. He also provides the score, along with his bandmate Warren Ellis and a few friends of theirs, including legendary bluegrass icon Ralph Stanley.
LaBeouf shakes off the grime from the Transformers films, and is quite convincing as the runt of the family trying to prove his worth. As Howard, Jason Clarke is fine, but rather underwhelming. The real scene stealer of the Bondurant clan is Forrest, played strongly by Tom Hardy, who is easily becoming a guy worth watching, as he's destined to become a legend. Gary Old,an is solid, if sadly underutilized as a gangster for whom Jack develops some hero worship, especially when he comes to his aid. When Hardy isn't the scene stealer, Guy Pearce is. As Rakes, he is profoundly intense, creepy, and makes for one memorable villain. Of course we have some love interests played by the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska, and, while the could have been given better material (and more to work with in general), they make the best out of what they're given.
I do like Cave as a writer, and while his score here is fine, I prefer the works that put him on the map. I'm not opposed to his non-musical exploits however, as I found one of his novels to be, if nothing else, an interesting and curious read. His script here is okay, but very underwritten. It really doesn't offer much depth beyond the bare basics of the outlaw story formula, but it could have been worse. Obviously it could have been better, given the source material and subject matter, and, had it been beefier, it probably would have.
I'll let it slide though, despite the fact that the film drags on about half of the time. I'm being lenient because I dig the subject matter, loved the cinematography, and thought John Hillcoat provided some decent direction. The period details and locations are nice too. The film is also smart about not pulling punches with the story, and indeed there are some grisly moments here. It's just a shame that most of the big stuff was saved for the end, with only a few moments of rough stuff here and there leading up to it.
All in all, this is a flawed film. I should be a lot harder on it, but, while I recognize the problems, I can't deny that it was entertaining, and had some good acting. Give it a watch.