Easily John Hillcoat's most accessible movie so far (his previous efforts The Proposition and The Road found a niche audience), little is sacrificed in the pursuit of a broader crowd as this prohibition-era gangster flick flexes its way through a thoroughly enjoyable couple of hours. Tom Hardy's immense presence is used to stirring effect, while Shia LaBeouf does his best to not be an annoying little shit and sometimes succeeds.
LaBeouf sporadically narrates this fact based tale of three brothers who bootlegged booze during a testing time for America, the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Transformers star is the youngest and generally runtiest of the three siblings, Jack Bondurant. Hardy portrays the seemingly invincible eldest, Forrest, while the imposing Jason Clarke is middle sibling Howard - the enforcer of the family. When corrupt cop Guy Pearce turns up demanding a cut of the profits, the brothers are backed into a corner that can only end violently.
LaBeouf is tasked with easily the most difficult role of the film; he's asked to play a character that doesn't measure up to his elder siblings and initially has small dog syndrome. Hillcoat and scripter Nick Cave do their best to take him on a journey that you just know will end in ponderous reflection, with LaBeouf attacking the role with his usual enthusiasm. He's just difficult to like, and while he does grow on you, you can't help but feel that the film would've worked better had the main focus been on Hardy's tough and fascinatingly complex Forrest.
That's a small flaw in an otherwise hugely entertaining film that really captures the ambience of the time while still making the characters and their exchanges feel as organic as if it were a modern setting. It doesn't play like a film set a generation ago, it just happens to take place in the 30s - so expect it to find a willing younger audience. Hillcoat doesn't skimp on the violence either; this was an extremely brutal era for America and there is more than one scene that may cause more sensitive viewers to wince.
Having missed out for his superb work in the criminally underrated Warrior last year, Tom Hardy should find himself suited and booted on Oscar night, practicing his speech in the mirror. His nomination would most likely be a supporting one, but every scene that he's in, you can't take your eyes off of him. It's another magnetic turn from the Englishman. Pearce is a brilliantly despicable bastard and Clarke suitably gruff. The female characters are certainly given the short end of the stick, and neither Chastain or Wasikowska have a lot to do, but their collective presence does soften the visceral edges of the film when called for. Special mention too must go to Chronicle star Dane DeHaan, who's excellent as Cricket.
LeBeouf may be the name to put bums on seats, but Hardy is the one who'll wow the masses. Thoroughly entertaining and impressively executed.