Lawless reminds us why the good old days weren’t so enviable at all, but it does so in such an aesthetically captivating manner, that we give ourselves over to the narrative willingly — a good thing as this story of dubious, unsung heroes based on the novel The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, real-life grandson of the protagonists, deserves a unique place in Americana.

This semi-biographical tale of corruption and courage, which we learn are not always mutually exclusive, takes place in Prohibition-era Virginia, where the three Bondurant brothers resisted the pressures of authorities and mafia big wigs to get in on their moonshine production business. The opening sequence is misleading: a sprawling expanse of variegated foliage is an organically beautiful introduction to a film that is otherwise dominated by perverse violence. A better indication emerges later on in the form of backwoods wisdom from one of the leads, Forrest Bondurant, played by scene-stealer Tom Hardy: “It is not the violence that sets a man apart, it’s the distance he is prepared to go.” This becomes not only the motto of the Bondurant family, but also of the film at large. It is an adventure on which we are glad to embark, even if we incur a few bruises along the way.

Even through the visceral violence and pervasive dread, the cinematography remains superb — stoic and nervous men alike are framed with composure, while insipid interiors and sweeping landscapes are equally vibrant. Lawless appeals to the eyes with a steadying magnetic pull even when the gritty content begs us to look away. Director John Hillcoat, master of contradictions, teaches that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but he also insists on portraying violence as it truly transpires, as if to remind audiences that his is not a glorifying mission. Brutal, messy, artless and humiliating, these acts of violence — a throat slit with a dulled knife, a man tar-and-feathered, an Adam’s apple dislocated by a brass knuckle — are enough to make the most fearless of moviegoers whimper; a context that is nevertheless not fortuitous.

Among these seemingly fearless men is Shia LaBeouf in the role of Jack Bondurant, the young brother of three craving respect and recognition as a bonafide gangster, who learns the hard way just how far people will indeed go when driven by greed. His role is not necessarily a complicated one, but certainly among the best played by the actor, who brings redeeming charisma to the petulant aspirant with which he’s charged. He is supported by a muscular cast, including Jason Clarke as thirsty veteran and older brother Howard, Dane DeHaan as the crippled and quietly-gifted apprentice Cricket, and Mia Wasikowska as Jack’s love interest — the fresh-faced daughter of an Amish family who turns out to have a rebellious streak.

But the film hinges on Hardy’s understated performance and expressive gut-deep grunts, which convey more emotion than all of LaBeouf’s outbursts and shenanigans — as well as his immediate chemistry with the lovely Jessica Chastain, who delivers another elegant performance as Maggie, a former Chicago dancer fleeing her blemished past. They are well-matched: two papier-mache heroes, cut from the same cloth and glued together by an instinct of survival. Chastain’s etherealness, often mistaken for fragility, veils here a fortitude that rivals his own, and she endures demons of a different, perhaps even more cruel, kind. She becomes the matriarch and pillar of a dysfunctional family whose communal head swells with ambition and delusions of immortality. They are supplemented by two other onscreen forces: Guy Pearce, embodying perfidy as the corrupt lawman envoy from Chicago, and Gary Oldman, who perfects his mobster outfit with his trademark amaranthine charm, despite his sporadic and all too brief appearances.

Hillcoat and writer Nick Cave, who had previously collaborated on the Australian feature The Proposition, ripen their talents in Lawless, producing a robust experience that — while still retaining the classic outlaw ingredients of bloodshed, vengeance and grit — is likewise apt at teasing out the challenging dynamics of a family that clings dangerously to its legacy of invincibility. Although the ending threatens to disappoint for its unexpected and anachronistic positivity, one last twist drives home the underlying absurdity of the Bondurants’ enterprise, motto and legend. With one foot in the Old West and another in the realm of modern mobsters, Lawless tips its hat to the Achilles heel that plagues all seemingly invincible men, no matter what era or genre.