The film has the look and feel of 1930’s rural Virginia, and is based upon a true story—those dreaded words that can turn 87 Lincoln St., Gettysburg, PA into The Gettysburg Address. The story is taken from the 2008 historical novel, THE WETTEST COUNTY IN THE WORLD by Matt Bondurant, the great grandson/grandnephew of the three brothers at the heart of the tale—so we’ve a pretty good idea where his sympathies are.
Shia LaBeof, Tom Hardy, Jason Clark, Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Guy Pearce, Dane DeHaan and Gary Oldman chew up the aforementioned brilliant scenery with aplomb to Nick Cave’s script and score, so for about two hours you sit glued to the screen, fascinated by everything you see. But when it’s over, you’re left feeling cheated, as if there had to be so much more to these characters than what you saw. The heroes are scruffy, crude, but noble in their own way. The women are largely love interests, without much depth to their characters. The villain is a dastardly fop, like something from a depression era film. The sacrificial lamb has his role written across his forehead from the moment he appears on screen. Everything is just too pat. And Oldman’s role in particular seems like a throw away part.
In brief, three brothers run a café/gas station and sell moonshine on the side. Everything is cool, even the local sheriff is a customer. And then the state politician and his sadistic henchman appear, initially selling protection to the bootleggers, all of whom save the three brothers cooperate. For some reason never adequately explained, the politician then begins shutting down the stills, and roughing up the locals. Along the way the ladies are introduced, one a preacher’s daughter, the other a fan dancer who’s had enough of the city; romance blossoms; folks get severely injured; folks get killed; Chicago gangsters buy moonshine; and the LaBoef character grows up, finds his balls. Before you know it, there’s a reckoning, and then the overlong fairytale ending and, poof, you’re back on the street outside the theater with the taste of popcorn lingering in your mouth wondering if you missed something.
To Cave’s credit, he managed to squeeze two covers of Lou Reed’s “White Light, White Heat” into the soundtrack, and by leaving off one verse, transforms the song about amphetamines in 1960’s New York City into a song about moonshine in 1930’s Franklin County. A pity he didn’t squeeze a bit more into the script.
Still, it’s a very watchable film, if ultimately disappointing. And the really sad part is that it’s probably the absolutely best movie to come from 2012 Hollywood, where retreads, formula and CGI are doing their utmost to run creativity and vision completely out of town.