Jessica Chastain stars as Maggie in Lawless.

Australian-born film-maker John Hillcoat is no stranger to the dingy, lived-in menace lurking in haunted landscapes or to hard men who’ve seen a lot.

Unfortunately, his latest, the Depression-era gangster tale Lawless, turns the Virginia hills of the early 1930s into just another backdrop for a clockwork succession of perfunctorily filmed showdowns and shoot-outs.

For a movie about moonshine, something so imaginatively made, mood-altering and once violently sought after, it goes down way too blandly.

It’s 1931, and the Bondurant brothers – steely survivor Forrest (Tom Hardy), rowdy war vet Howard (Jason Clarke) and wide-eyed youngest sibling Jack (Shia LaBeouf) – are entrepreneurs in Franklin County, Virginia, comfortably riding out the Depression by selling and plying accommodating authorities with their special brand of white lightning.

The brothers have a local reputation for being invincible and they will ruthlessly protect their turf. Still, the trio are unprepared for the tweaked brand of bloody pushback embodied in corrupt Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a foppish, bow-tie-wearing lawman fresh from wherever Chicago grows psychos.

Pearce’s gloved, pomaded and snarling entrance instantly signals a movie divorced from reality, despite the fact that it’s based on Matt Bondurant’s fictionalised account of his real-life moonshining ancestors, The Wettest County in the World.

Lawless is fuelled instead by empty mythmaking, and escalating levels of meanness and retribution.

In the screenplay written by Nick Cave, Rakes is a scale-tipping cheat designed to put viewers instantly on the side of law-breaking toughs, their code of honour as corny as the region’s whiskey. The brothers, though, seem more like actors sharing top billing than actual blood relations.

Jessica Chastain, assigned to erotically lure Forrest from his battle-tough shell, and Mia Wasikowska, playing a flirty preacher’s daughter acquiring a taste for wannabe gangster Jack, are both woefully underused.

Faring better is the sideline treat of Gary Oldman as a slick city mobster young Jack wants to emulate.

The veteran actor’s dangerously charming way with authoritative grit and explosive brutality easily suggests the nervy entertainment Lawless might have been.

Ultimately, the movie, which had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, is after something rough but sweet. Yet it also wants to be instantly vintage too – a ready-made myth, its backwoods criminals as tall as the surrounding pines – and there it especially falls short.

Benoit Delhomme’s flattened, monochromatic cinematography may be appropriate for a story of earthy antiheroes, but the washed-out look quickly grows monotonous as the characters’ interactions turn increasingly violent, one horrific act spurring another until the screen is awash in muted blood.

Mayhem never tasted more like medicine.

Robert Abele, Los Angeles Times