Live by Night

 

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Gangster action more persuasive than the moral drama to which it is linked.

 
Live by Night

Matthew Maher, Chris Messina and Ben Affleck

  

The American novelist Dennis Lehane has been lucky in the Hollywood adaptations from his work including Mystic River, The Drop and Gone Baby Gone which latter piece marked Ben Affleck’s directorial feature debut. Affleck remains on board with this latest adaptation (he is credited as star, co-producer, director and writer) but, despite Lehane himself being one of several executive producers, Live by Night is less successful than its predecessors. Although the film starts out in Boston, hometown of both Lehane and Affleck, it moves before long to Tampa, Florida which becomes the main setting and one can understand why Affleck should reportedly regard Live by Night as a homage to the gangster films of the Prohibition era since the tale takes place between 1927 and 1929 and to some extent pivots on the rival Boston gangs of the period. There’s the Irish one run by Albert White (Robert Glenister) and the Italian one headed by Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone).

 

However, to be reminded of the classic gangster movies of the 1930s is to bring to mind the blazing star quality of such players as James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson who could render repellant crooks utterly engaging. Here the unmemorable central figure is Affleck’s Joe Coughlin. To be fair, the story does not require a dynamic performer in this role, but in trying to turn him into a complex figure drawn to crime but capable of redemption, a far stronger and more perceptively detailed screenplay is needed. Initially it sets up Joe as an outsider reacting against the conformity to duty that led to so many American deaths in the First World War. We then see how his actions grieve his policeman father (Brendan Gleeson) even though on starting out as a minor league robber he seeks to describe himself as an outlaw rather than as a gangster. But, when employed by the rival gangs in turn, he ends up creating as much mayhem as any out-and-out gangster. Consequently, this character commands little sympathy and no pity.

 

Technically Live by Night is a competent job which works best as an action piece. But much of the time we find the episodic narrative being used to enfold within the main story the tales of three women encountered by Joe: Emma (Sienna Miller), the Cuban Graciela (Zoe Saldana) and Loretta (Elle Fanning) whose father (Chris Cooper) is a cop who disciplines her when she goes off the rails. Miller fares best here since Fanning’s story leads to an unlikely pay off while Saldana's role is so underwritten as to make no impact except when it ends in an unfortunate cliché. Developed in depth and with more insight in the writing, this could have been a compelling morality tale, but, as it stands, the more one catches glimpses of what it might have been the more one becomes aware that, for all its production values, this is something of an opportunity squandered.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Ben Affleck, Elle Fanning, Remo Girone, Brendan Gleeson, Robert Glenister, Matthew Maher, Chris Messina, Sienna Miller, Miguel J. Pimentel, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper, Chris Sullivan, Anthony Michael Hall, Max Casella, Christian Clemenson, Clark Gregg.

 

Dir Ben Affleck, Pro Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Davisson, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Todd, Screenplay Ben Affleck, from the novel by Dennis Lehane, Ph Robert Richardson, Pro Des Jess Gonchor, Ed William Goldenberg, Music Harry Gregson-Williams, Costumes Jacqueline West.

 

Appian Way Productions/Pearl Street Films-Warner Brothers.
128 mins. USA. 2016. Rel: 13 January 2017. Cert. 15.