Friday, January 20, 2017
Live By Night
In Raoul Walsh’s ‘The Roaring Twenties’, the trenches of the First World War are the cauldron in which loyalty, rivalry and criminality are forged. In Michael Curtiz’s ‘Angels with Dirty Faces’, a spiritual battle for the soul of the gangster is finally decided in an ambiguous closing scene. In Howard Hawks’s ‘Scarface’, the gangster is elevated to tragic hero, pursuing the attainment of the world entire at the cost of everything else.
Ben Affleck’s ‘Live By Night’ merges elements of all of these and more – surely it’s no coincidence that Dennis Lehane, on whose novel the film is based, picked the title for its evocation of Nicholas Ray’s hymn to the romanticism of the outlaw, ‘They Live By Night’ – as it strives to recreate the iconography of classic Warner Brothers gangster movies while engaging in a dialogue pertinent to a contemporary audience.
And to a certain degree the attempt is to Affleck’s credit. As the poet said: a man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for? However, in identifying Lehane’s fiction as a potent combination of propulsive genre narrative and intelligent social commentary – previously translated to the screen in fine style in Clint Eastwood’s ‘Mystic River’ and Affleck’s own directorial debut ‘Gone, Baby, Gone’, and to a slightly lesser degree in Martin Scorsese’s ‘Shutter Island’ – Affleck makes two crucial mistakes.
But we’ll come to those later. For now, take my hand and we’ll waltz through a plot synopsis. Irish-American twenty-something Joe Coughlin (Affleck) comes back from the war pissed off with taking orders and kowtowing to rank. He and some buddies carve out a minor living doing nickel and dime hold-ups until Irish mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister) recruits him under pressure. Coughlin, not wanting to be a part of any particular gang or organisation, accepts in the spirit of self-preservation and because it puts him closer to White’s flapper girl moll Emma (Sienna Miller, aurally defiling the movie with the worst Irish accent), with whom he’s conducting an affair. Meanwhile, Italian mob boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) tries to persuade Coughlin to assassinate White. His options running out, Coughlin plans one last job to fund his absconsion with Emma. It goes tits up. Meanwhile, a vindictive Pescatore puts the word out to White about Coughlin’s dalliance with Emma. The only thing that saves him from death at White’s hands is the intervention of his police captain father (Brendan Gleeson, to whom Sienna Miller’s Irish accent owes an apology), and even then he still has to take a beating from Coughlin Snr’s cop buddies and do some jail time.
All of which would be enough material to fill a 90 minute feature and yet here is little more than an extended overture (one, moreover, that’s established and rushed through as inelegantly as a bull on steroids manoeuvring its way from the front entrance to the rear exit of an emporium dedicated to the crockery and figurines fashioned from the finest bone china). The main business of the story takes place post-prison sentence as Coughlin, grieving for Emma (presumed dead after her care plunges off a bridge) and burning for revenge against White, sells his soul to Pescatore and finds himself running the mobster’s rum smuggling operation in Tampa. Here, he partners up with Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina), muscles White’s crew out of the game, and reaches an agreement with police chief Figgis (Chris Cooper) whereby Coughlin and Bartolo restrict their dealings to specific socio-geographical locations and the cops turn a blind eye. While Coughlin establishes a profitable business relationship with rum distiller Estaban Suarez (Miguel), whose sister Graciela (Zoe Saldana) he romances, Figgis’s impressionable daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning) goes off to Hollywood to be a star but ends up addicted to heroin and forced to appear in skin flicks. When Figgis’s KKK-connected brother-in-law R.D. (Matthew Maher, stealing scenes like Rafferty stole jewels) takes against Coughlin on account of his relationship with the dusky-hued Graciela, Coughlin uses Loretta as leverage to convince Figgis to set R.D. up. Coughlin’s devious machinations are, however, not enough to avoid a full-scale conflagration between Klan and bootleggers.
There’s no doubt that this is the most effective part of the film, even if the pay-off is badly rushed, but again there’s material aplenty in this one plot strand for an entire feature. But Affleck isn’t done yet. With the Klan out of the way, the end of Prohibition looming and a fuckton of Pescatore’s profits sunk into a casino development, Coughlin then has to contend with Loretta’s post-rehab reappearance as a hellfire preacher (yes, Affleck casts the elfin Fanning as a hellfire preacher; yes, that decision works out exactly as you’d expect) and the cold-feet withdrawal of his legitimate business partners on account of the negative publicity Loretta’s anti-vice, anti-gambling, anti-everything-but-God campaign has stirred up. And if that’s not enough, Pescatore has plans to retire Coughlin, it turns out that Emma might not be dead after all, and White has one last hand to play.
Once again, enough material for a whole film is shoehorned into half an hour, with melodrama and cliché piling up against each other. A fantastically staged and edited hotel shoot-out restores some genre kudos to the proceedings, but an extended coda in three acts drags things out that bit longer.
I said earlier that there were two problems with the film. The first is Affleck the writer, the second Affleck the actor. While there’s no doubt that he’s totally engaged with the material as director, he doesn’t yet have the skill as a scriptwriter to translate Lehane into the cinematic medium; and as an actor, he doesn’t deliver the complexity Coughlin’s character calls for, nor does he have any chemistry with Miller or Saldana. (His asexual relationship with Anna McKendrick’s character in ‘The Accountant’ generates more frisson!)
‘Live By Night’ wants to be a sweeping old-fashioned epic but one that turns a contemporary eye to questions of race, religion, politics, loyalty, rivalry, compromise and even social justice (Graciela is driven by restoring dignity and honour to the underclass of her native Cuba). There would have been two ways to do justice to the book: focus on about a fifth of the existing narrative, truncating the timeline and focusing on character interaction (a la Curtis Hanson’s adaptation of James Ellroy’s ‘L.A. Confidential’), or as a TV mini-series of about five hours. Affleck simply tries to cram too much into his 128-minute running time. Paradoxically, this results not in a frenetic narrative but a plodding and sometimes tiresome one.
That said, there are still things to appreciate. Robert Richardson’s cinematography is a thing of beauty, conjuring some eyeball-searing images: a burning police car sinking into a steely-grey lake; a motorboat slowly cleaving the waters of a lake sheened with the pink/gold of a fireball sun sinking into the horizon; a nocturnal shoot-out in front of the skeletal frame of a half-built casino, laths of timber creating frames within frames within frames. There is also a cluster of fantastic performance – Cooper, Messina, Maher, Glenister, Girone – although this comes at the cost of there not being a single decent role for a woman in the whole thing.
“You get out of this world what you put into it,” Coughlin’s father warns him at one point, “but not always how you might expect.” Coughlin was always going to be blasé about this truism; he was always going to be a compromised protagonist. That the film is equally compromised is the real disappointment.