As election season kicks into high gear, we're hearing a lot of talk about the pioneering American spirit. Americans, always inventive, have never been afraid of hard work, both parties remind us. A character in "Lawless" puts it another way: "Turns out you can make moonshine out of anything."

"Lawless," based on the true story of bootlegging brothers during Prohibition, is an insanely violent film. But it's also a very well-executed, classic story of American innovation and resolve.

The genre of the Western is nearly as old as the medium itself. Audiences never seem to tire of such films -- so studios keep making them. "Lawless" shows there are plenty of ways to modernize the category while still showing it respect.

On screen
3.5 out of 4 stars
Stars: Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain
Director: John Hillcoat
Rated: R for strong bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity
Running time: 115 minutes

"Lawless" opens with a clever set piece that places us squarely in Franklin County, Va., in 1931. The Bondurant boys -- eldest Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke) and baby Jack (Shia LaBeouf) -- are driving a truckload of moonshine over rickety roads when they spot the sheriff in the distance. We don't yet know the brothers, but we're immediately worried for them anyway.

No need. The sheriff, it turns out, is one of their customers.

Prohibition proved that you can't legislate away human nature. The government could make alcohol illegal. But it couldn't stop Americans from having a thirst -- or finding clever ways to slake it.

The Bondurants first deliver a load to a black party, then a white event. The contrast is striking: The first celebration is just that, a celebration of life; the second is a rather staid affair. The brothers don't care. They serve all comers.

Until a federal agent (Guy Pearce) comes to town. He wants a cut of the game. Forrest was happy to pay off local law enforcement, but he'll have nothing to do with this Chicago man who can't contain his disgust for the "hicks." And so begins a war that seems as bloody as any the South has known, though of course on a much smaller scale.

Forrest isn't a man of many words. But he doesn't need florid speeches to show us he's a man of character, despite his flouting of the law. Hardy continues to amaze here. It seems there's nothing the actor can't do, with whatever he's allowed to use in a given part. He can barely speak to the waitress of the coffee shop/gas station his family owns. But we know exactly how he feels about her.

She's played by Jessica Chastain, one of the best finds of recent years. She brings a strange purity to the mysterious -- and clearly fallen -- woman she portrays. LaBeouf, acting opposite them and veterans such as Gary Oldman (a great gangster), steps up his game at long last.

The music, at times modern, seems a bit out of place in "Lawless." But nothing else does. The guns on display in the calloused hands of the Bondurants and the manicured one of the fed are beautiful -- they don't make them like that anymore. Fortunately, we don't have to say the same about the genre in which they're often found.