CANNES - John Hillcoat has carved out a very strong presence in world cinema with just a few films, and while I respect both "The Proposition" and "The Road," I would have a hard time claiming to love either of them. His new film, "Lawless," made its debut at Cannes first thing Saturday morning, and the most striking thing about it at first glance is that Hillcoat seems to have learned some new shades as a filmmaker, and for the first time in his career, it feels like he's actually having some fun.  It helps that he's got Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeaouf, and Guy Pearce heading a strong ensemble cast, and that the based-on-a-true-story script by Nick Cave is a rowdy bit of hillbilly mythmaking, a purely American tale written in blood and bullet casings.

Matt Bondurant's book, "The Wettest County In The Word," tells the story of his family's role in the bootlegging trade of the '30s in Franklin County, Virginia.  Forrest (Tom Hardy) is the hard-boiled center of the family, the balancing point between the wild, untamed lunacy of big brother Howard (Jason Clarke) and the hesitant, good-natured Jack (Shia LaBeouf).  They each have their skills, and they all help perpetuate the legend that Bondurant boys are invincible, a story that began when Howard was the only member of his platoon to return home after World War I. 

They have carved out a nice, comfortable place for themselves and their moonshine at the start of the film, but that equilibrium is upset when Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) is brought in from Chicago to break the bootlegging industry in their county.  He's a barely-restrained weirdo, and Pearce digs into the role with relish, setting in motion a series of gruesome back-and-forth skirmishes designed to see if the law is tougher than the Bondurants.

Don't bet on it.

You've seen movies like "Lawless" before, and narratively speaking, there's nothing new here.  It is not some revelatory take on the era or on the dynamics of good guys and bad guys.  Hillcoat wisely doesn't treat the material as if it is some brand-new thing, instead just taking tactile pleasure in the details of the period and in the truly lovely performances he gets out of almost everyone.  LaBeouf will probably benefit the most from this film, and good for him.  He's a talented guy, but his big mainstream work over the last half-decade has made it hard to remember the promise that he exhibited when we first saw him.  Here, he holds his own as the baby brother of the family, the one born without a killer instinct, and his evolution over the course of the film is expertly charted.  Hardy, on the other hand, is largely unchanging, a brick wall that the other characters bounce off of repeatedly.

What Hillcoat does well here is punctuate things with violence, and that's not a skill set everyone has.  The way Hillcoat uses bloodshed, it's upsetting, but it's quick.  It is designed to hurt, but he really doesn't dwell on it.  Even the most upsetting act of violence in the film, and there are several to choose from, is handled in a way that is about the emotion of it rather than just the viscera.  It gives the movie a pulse that's hard to deny.

The supporting cast isn't always given much to do.  Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain are both lovely as "the women," but there's not much for them to do beyond that.  Sadly, the same is true of Gary Oldman, who shows up as a well-known Chicago gangster.  He's in and out of the movie so fast that I'm not really sure why Hillcoat cast him, other than the pleasure of working with Gary Oldman.  If you liked Dane DeHaan's work as the troubled lead of this year's "Chronicle," he has a nice supporting role here as Cricket, Jack's best friend.  He's building a nice resume for himself, and he's well-used in the film.

There is a great score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and the single best musical choice at the festival so far this year involves what sound like '30s-era covers of the Velvet Underground song "White Light/White Heat."  Awesome.  Genuinely.  Benoit Delhomme's photography is crisp and beautiful, capturing the raw natural charms of Virginia just as effortlessly as the awful ragged bullet holes in the sides of a car or the shocking sight of blood spattered across a snow-covered porch.

"Lawless" probably isn't going to send anyone to any awards shows this year, but it is a nice indication that Hillcoat can play more than the one note that he's hammered so hard so far in his work.  I enjoyed it, and while I don't think it's the strongest film I've seen here so far, it may well be the most commercial.

"Lawless" opens August 31, 2012 in the US.