The words Based On A True Story are usually a sign that a pile of manure is headed your way, but I'm happy to report that for the most part, John Hillcoat's film about The Bondurant Boys is a classy and engaging piece of work.
We're in Bonnie and Clyde country here. The three brothers, Forrest, Howard and Jack (Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke and Shia Laboeuf) make moonshine liquor during Prohibition (the year is 1931). They have a decent working arrangement with the local law enforcement officers – live and let live – until a federal agent called Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) comes to town. He is not only the arm of the law, but the devil incarnate. He parts his hair in the middle and slicks it back; he wears perfume; he sneers a good deal; and seems to be short of the normal amount of eyebrows. He's come to make trouble for the boys, and they in turn refuse to back down.
Other characters include Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) as a Chicago gangster with whom they become involved; Maggie (Jessica Chastain) a former dancer who's moved to the country for peace and quiet (good luck with that), and Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) the daughter of religious man who has no desire for her to get involved with criminals. And just to reinforce the Bonnie & Clyde parallels, Jack has a friend and partner called Cricket who bears a strong resemblance to Michael J Pollard from that classic movie. It's all set for a showdown between the forces of good and evil, assuming you're happy to side with the booze-makers (and yes, Prohibition was an idiotic idea).
There is much to admire and enjoy about the film. The acting is consistently good. Although Shia Laboeuf is by some way the least promising member of the cast, he holds his end up well as a young man who is ever so keen to impress his older brothers with how tough and cool he is, and simply causes problems as a result. The two women have precious little material to work with, but possess sufficient screen charisma to make the most of the limited opportunities; and while Pearce is something of a pantomime villain, he is so unpleasant and violent that we are happy to boo him whenever he appears. For me, though, the star of the film is Tom Hardy. He embodies a man of principle and integrity who is simultaneously willing to commit acts of extreme violence when he sees the necessity to do so. He shambles round in an old cardigan, and has a habit of sounding confused or uncertain when he speaks. But don't mistake him for a man you can even begin to think of messing with.
Hillcoat's previous film, The Proposition was an Australian western, and this is another film in that genre, set in Kentucky this time. It's based on a book written by the grandson of one of the brothers, and manages to convey a sense of a palpable and credible reality – even if it is a movie-constructed reality. The costumes, cars, settings and accents all sound plausible (to my untutored ear and eye), and I got pretty thoroughly emotionally involved. Stay away if scenes of violence are going to to turn you off, but otherwise, this looks like one of the best films of the autumn.