"Lawless" is a brutal drama based on a true story said to have taken place during the Great Depression in 1931 in Franklin County, Va.

With the advent of Prohibition in 1920, following passage of the Volstead Act as the 18th Amendment in 1919, the making and drinking of alcoholic beverages was banned in the United States.

Illegal beer and hard-liquor making began all over the United States, pitting local, state and federal lawmen against not only what became known as the Mafia in the big cities, but farmers in rural areas who made their own liquor in out-of-the-way stills by the light of the moon hence, the term moonshiners.

"Lawless" is based on the novel, "The Wettest County in the World," by Matt Bondurant, who wrote about his grandfather and great uncles, who ran a hooch-making operation in the southwestern Virginia mountains. The story became known as the Franklin County Moonshine Conspiracy.

John Hillcoat ("The Road," "The Proposition") directs confidently from a fine screenplay by Nick Cave (screenwriter, "The Proposition"; actor and songwriter of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds).

The blandly-titled "Lawless" the book's title, "The Wettest County in the World," would have been better is a viscerally-startling, sometimes humorous, genuinely engaging film propelled by good performances, crisp dialogue and scene writing, and superb cinematography, editing and soundtrack songs.

Our window into the story is Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBoeuf), youngest brother of Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy) and Howard Bondurant (Jason Clarke), targeted by Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a federal deputy marshal brought in to clean up Franklin County moonshining.

Rakes' roughshod tactics upset the good ole boys' balance of give and take, i.e., bribery, that allowed some local law enforcement officers to look the other way as moonshining operations thrived.

The film's subplot is about a love interest between Forrest and Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain), who fled south to escape Chicago gangland violence, and Jack and Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska), who appears to be a young Mennonite woman.

Another plot thread involves Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), a moonshine distributor and kingpin who seems above the law, or at least beyond the reach of the long arm of the law.

Dane DeHaan (HBO's "In Treatment"), a former Emmaus High School student, plays Cricket Pate, who runs the Bondurant family's moonshine operations. DeHaan is immensely likeable in the role, pivotal to an important plot point late in the movie.

Pearce ("Memento") is chilling as Rakes in a turn that recalls the Emcee from "Cabaret," but with fists and guns. Oldman ("The Dark Knight," "Harry Potter") has a small role.

Hardy, whose performance as Bane in "The Dark Knight Rises" was almost obscured by his makeup and costume, is powerful, solid and dark as Forrest, as bespeaks his name.

Chastain ("The Tree of Life," "The Help") is efficiently cool as a ravishing redhead who doesn't need to broadcast her considerable charms.

Wasikowska ("Alice in Wonderland," "Jane Eyre") is girlish and lovely as a very persuasive penitent.

LaBoeuf's boyish face, big, wide-open eyes and self-effacing stature gives us an everyman character with whom we can identify.

The bleached-out and sepia-toned cinematography gives a true-life feel to the setting and storyline.

The 21st Amendment, which repealed the 18th Amendment, was ratified in 1933. Alcohol was again legal. It was the only time in United States' history that an amendment was repealed.

Until that happened, lawlessness was sometimes the law of the land in America. An activity deemed illegal apparently made for even more illegalities.

It's been said: The road to hell is paved with good intentions. That's "Lawless."

"Lawless," MPAA Rated R (Restricted. Under 17 Requires Accompanying Parent Or Adult Guardian) for strong bloody violence, language and some sexuality-nudity; Genre: Crime, Drama, Western: Run time: 1 hr., 56 min.; Distributed by The Weinstein Company.

Credit Readers Anonymous: Nick Cave and collaborator Warren Ellis dubbed themselves The Bootleggers to record "Lawless" soundtrack songs, including Townes Van Zandt's "Fire in the Blood" and the Velvet Underground's "White Light-White Heat." Ralph Stanley and Willie Nelson also contributed.

Box Office, Sept. 21: It was a virtual three-way tie for No. 1, with opening films, "End of Watch," $13 million; "House at the End of the Street," $13 million; and "Trouble with the Curve," $12.7 million;

4. "Finding Nemo," $9.4 million, $29.9 million, two weeks; 5. "Resident Evil: Retribution," $6.7 million, $33.4 million; 6. "Dredd 3D," $6.3 million; 7. "The Master," $5 million, $6 million, two weeks; 8. "The Possession," $2.6 million, $45.6 million, four weeks; 9. "Lawless," $2.3 million, $34.5 million, four weeks; 10. "ParaNorman," $2.2 million, $52.5 million, six weeks

Unreel, Sept. 28:

"Looper," R: Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis star as the younger and older of the same person in a time-travel sci-fi action film that could send your brain into overdrive.

"Hotel Transylvania," PG: Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Andy Samberg and Selena Gomez provide the ghoulish voices for the animation comedy about Dracula's resort.

"Won't Back Down," PG: Viola Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Holly Hunter in a drama about teachers trying to save an inner-city school.

"Pitch Perfect," PG-13: Anna Kendrick, Brittany Snow and Rebel Wilson in a musical comedy about a university female singing group.

Read previous movie reviews by Paul Willistein at the Times-News web site, tnonline.com. Email Paul Willistein pwillistein@tnonline.com and on Facebook.

Three Popcorn Boxes out of Five Popcorn Boxes