The Bondurant brothers have a cosy set up, running a small petrol station while not-so-secretly producing gallons of illicit alcohol to deliver to the nearby towns. Well paid and popular, they're able to enjoy their sleepy lives without the law hassling them (even the local cops need a drink).
At least until Special Agent Charles Rakes (Pearce) rolls into town. An all-out oddball shorn of eyebrows, Rakes demands that Forrest (Hardy) and his brothers Jack (LaBeouf) and Howard (Clarke) start paying for their freedom to produce moonshine.
But Forrest, big and imposing and apparently impossible to kill, isn't the kind of guy to cave in to a bully, setting the brothers on a collision course with the Feds.
Then there's young Jack, all-too desperate to grow up, spending his cash on sharp suits to emulate his heroes Al Capone and Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), a local gangster whose machine-gun antics are witnessed by the impressionable greenhorn.
The story is far from complex, rooted in the real life escapades of the Bondurant brothers. But it is compelling, presenting a rare look at the people who brewed the moonshine for the likes of Nuckie Thompson and Al Capone to make millions out of.
Man-mountain Hardy, monosyllabic and mumbling, is mesmerising as the elder brother looking out for his siblings, while LaBeouf puts in a career best as the kid desperate to emulate his heroes, offering levels of emotion he's rarely been able, let alone allowed to touch in his numerous tentpole movie appearances.
Pearce, meanwhile, chomps into the role of the quirky Fed (not far removed from Boardwalk Empire's Agent Van Alden), delivering facial ticks and clenched fists along with his pursed lines.
The story, based on the biographical 2008 novel The Wettest County In The World by Matt Bondurant - Jack's grandson - plays out against the backdrop of Virginia, with oppressive summer heat belting out of the screen and bustling crickets offering a soundtrack to the outbreaks of violence which, while few and far between, are particularly gruesome.
It's rare for a script based on true events to find such a well-structured story, avoiding the temptation to flit between different time periods in the brothers' lives, rather, focussing on the showdown with the law just when life appears to be going smoothly.
This is a credit to both rocker-turned-screenwriter Nick Cave, who has adapted the core elements of the book so successfully, and his The Proposition collaborator John Hillcoat, with his wonderful sense of atmosphere.
Hillcoat previously drowned The Road in dread and foreboding, and here sets the tough tone of Lawless, deep in rural Virginia where the sun beats hard and the villains beat harder.
You might have seen such a story before, but you almost certainly haven't been offered it in such engrossing terms.