If you go to the cinema to watch prohibition era thriller Lawless, Australian-born director John Hillcoat’s second adaptation of a screenplay penned by Nick Cave, best to ensure the building’s foundations are sound, the load bearing walls secure, the emergency exits accessible…

Screens are only able to take so much, stay vertical for so long, keep attached to the wall. When the heft of Lawless’ ground-rattling performances — a dream of testosterone-infused ensemble casting — kicks in, you wouldn’t want to be standing directly under it.

Tom Hardy is again the man’s-man-man’s-man. He plays moonshine makin’ hard guy Forrest Bondurant, the kind of fella who lectures you about manners after smashing a bottle of whiskey on your head. Again, even in this post-Bane society, even in this pre-Bane picture, Hardy has some seriously gnarly issues with his voice box.

Shia LaBeouf gives his most nuanced performance yet as Hardy’s younger and naiver bro Jack. Noah Taylor looks wan and food-deprived as one of the henchmen of Gary Oldman, who pops up in a high-impact bit part as one of the film’s many bootleg al-cee-hol buying law-breakers.

But it’s a ghostly pale-skinned Guy Pearce as Charlie Rakes who steals the show, almost single handedly shifting the film from a gritty drama to a rustic thriller. Rakes is an oil-slick hard-hitting city cop sent to the sticks to break up the illegal syndicate of the Bondurant Brothers, whose real-life story inspired the film.

Pearce’s performance is deeper than his character, who eventually crumbles into the realms of caricature, if only a little, and in the film’s final, deep, confrontational breaths. But it’s worth it.

Lawless gathers focus as it steams along, Cave’s screenplay erring towards LaBeouf as the protagonist as it maintains a drafty sense of realism. You never know when characters will appear or disappear for sizable chunks of running time, which helps make the interpersonal relationships feel broad but close, loose but unsettling. It also gives the story a wandering unpredictability, a sense of entangled lives and moments that pass us by….

You’d call them vignettes if Hillcoat took the easier route, emphasised them as self-contained pockets of tension. Instead they exist as a kind of tumbling ball of uneasiness underscored by a simmering sense of dread, of danger closing in, and the Australian-born director brings all this together with a fluid sense of mystique.

The film is shot and edited beautifully, Benoît Delhomme’s cinematography capturing rustic Americana with a luscious and loving lens, soaking up the wood and greenery and shacks and guns like a sponge.

Lawless captures a time when formal notions of the American Dream were a while away, past some distant academic horizon, but you can see almost see it actualising, growing through the grass and rustling in the leaves. The dream of success, of owning land and protecting your interests, of personal enterprise, getting a family, making a stake in a man’s world, keeping a gun close by.

We can see how it started to go wrong before it really existed: a sweltering disdain for authorities, the danger of franchised black markets, the rise of criminals linked more to underworld commerce than moral wrongdoing, the delusion of a collective conscience in a world of gang wars and bit parts and irreconcilable ideologies, the fear and blood that marks it.

“You even believe your own legend,” Tom Hardy’s wifey-wife character, played by Jessica Chastain, tells the supposedly immortal boulder-of-a-man. She might as well be addressing the country as a whole, daring it to come to terms with its own foibles, challenging perceptions of a limitless shelf life.

Lawless’ Australian theatrical release date: October 11, 2012.