Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh

Regional filmmaker Jay Craven's adaptation of Howard Frank Mosher's Prohibition-era adventure story with magical-realist flourishes is an impressive achievement: Less than $2 million has rarely bought such narrative sweep and handsome locations. But the mix of rollicking, family-friendly action and backwoods mysticism is odd, as is the story's progress from larky escapades to increasingly grim consequences, and Craven never quite manages to make it all seem a smoothly integrated piece.

Kingdom County, Vermont, 1932: Once upon a time, Quebec Bill Bonhomme (Kris Kristofferson) was a raffish bootlegger like his father and grandfather, both of whom vanished while chasing excitement and illegal dollars. But marriage and encroaching age have downgraded him from hell-raiser to mere eccentric, a farmer whose fancies include keeping a peacock along with the cattle and horses. Times are hard, so when a barn fire incinerates the hay that was supposed to feed the livestock until spring, Quebec Bill and his family — spooky sister Cordelia (Genevieve Bujold), younger wife Evangeline (Heather Rae), and teenage son Wild Bill (Charlie McDermott), a cautious, sensible youngster who's more the mild type — are in a tight spot. Bill's Iroquois brother-in-law, Henry (Gary Farmer), hears about a job running 20 cases of whiskey across the border from Canada, and the two Bills, along with Henry and Bill's hired hand Rat (William Sanderson), promptly pile into Henry's shiny new car and set off to move some hooch. Unfortunately, the liquor belongs — in the sense that he stole it first — to Carcajou (Lothaire Bluteau), an apparition with a black beard, flowing white hair and a taste for military buckles and brass, whose name means "wolverine" in the Micmac language. With the apparently unstoppable Carcajou in hot pursuit, the rum runners are forced to hop from canoe to car to stolen train, losing contraband at every step.

For all the boys'-own-adventure elements — that hijacked train, the escapades of hard-drinking monk Father St. Hilaire (Luis Guzman), lots of skulking around spooky nighttime swamps — the story is primarily a coming-of-age tale in which timid Wild Bill begins to live up to his name by stealing, getting drunk and killing a man. His progress is laced with omens, curses and apparitions, and while Bujold's steady performance as the uncanny Cordelia helps ground the spooky stuff, it's still awkward when mixed with the film's more conventional elements.