2.5 stars. Rated R, for strong violence, profanity and occasional sexuality
By Derrick Bang
Dennis Lehane’s Live By Night is a huge, Prohibition-era crime epic that deservedly won the 2013 Edgar Award for novel of the year, its 432 pages charting mobster Joe Coughlin’s rise to power from Boston to Florida, and ultimately to Cuba.
Filmmaker Ben Affleck’s big-screen adaptation is a maddeningly pale shadow of the book.
Affleck clearly bit off more than he could chew, aggressively assuming the roles of not only director and star, but also co-producer and — here’s the problem — screenwriter. His approach to Lehane’s sprawling novel is a series of disconnected sequences linked by voice-over narration: a clumsy abridgment that too frequently feels as if we’re being told the story, rather than experiencing it.
The result plays like 128 minutes of random chunks from a 10-hour miniseries (and, it should be noted, Lehane’s novel probably deserved that sort of long-form treatment). The tragic consequence: Affleck has made Lehane’s enthralling narrative boring.
The story’s moral focus concerns the corruptible power of evil, and whether a larcenous but essentially kind-hearted individual can remain “good” among companions who respect only ruthless behavior. It’s a venerable character arc that dates back to early Hollywood crime dramas, interpreted by scores of film stars ... most of whom did so far more persuasively.
Nuanced acting never has been Affleck’s strong suit, and his character’s handling of what should be a series of soul-deadening, increasingly agonized choices too frequently looks like bland, unsmiling indifference.
Coughlin is this story’s hero — or, more accurately, anti-hero — and we’re clearly intended to feel for the guy. We don’t.
Indeed, Affleck — as director and scripter — makes a fatal mistake: Coughlin is by no means the most interesting character in this story ... but he should be. While it was smart to populate the film with a host of powerful, scene-stealing co-stars, Affleck’s performance pales by comparison.
The story begins in Boston, where Coughlin, disillusioned and sickened by the death he witnessed during his World War I service, has become an anti-establishment outlaw. Alongside trusted companion Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina), Coughlin orchestrates a series of low-level heists, eventually attracting the attention of rival crime bosses Albert White (Robert Glenister) and Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). Both offer Joe steady employment, but — unwilling to be “owned” by either — he refuses.
This proves unwise, particularly since Joe is in the midst of a giddy affair with feisty flapper Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), who happens to be White’s mistress: an ill-advised relationship that eventually comes to Pescatore’s attention. Worse yet, it hits the radar of Joe’s father, Thomas (Brendan Gleeson), who happens to be Boston’s Police Deputy Superintendent.
Right there, we have enough back-story and intrigue to fill an hour of screen time ... but Affleck breezes through it in a ludicrously superficial 10 minutes, leaving us with all sorts of questions. Top of the list: Why does Thomas so blithely tolerate his son’s larcenous activities? While it could be argued that Thomas delights in the fact that Joe is such a bother to both the Irish and Italian mob, what father could fail to recognize that his son is charting such a suicidal course?
The situation erupts, as it must; Joe escapes death — which, in this Reader’s Digest adaptation, seems ludicrous — and instead serves a few years in prison. Once out, and now determined to obtain revenge against White, Joe reluctantly allies himself with Pescatore. He’s sent down to the dusty Florida hamlet of Ybor, Dion again at his side, to “stabilize” the supply of Cuban rum intended for Pescatore’s many illegal speakeasies.
Ybor is a hot and humid revelation: not only for the climate change, but also for the good-natured work ethic of the town’s multi-racial citizens. Joe feels at ease among such unexpected integrity, as he discovers that the rum business is fueled by its most necessary ingredient: molasses, the distribution of which is controlled by Cubans Esteban Suarez (Miguel J. Pementel) and his sister, Graciela (Zoe Saldana).
And, suddenly, Joe discovers that his previous relationship with Emma was exciting but unfulfilling, and that — with Graciela — he has found an educated, cultured and sensitive woman worthy of being loved. But the path to true love proves just as tempestuous as Joe’s ambitious efforts — on Pescatore’s behalf — to transform Florida’s Tampa region into a gambling Mecca.
As if his precarious position in the ongoing war between Pescatore and White weren’t sufficiently dangerous, Joe’s life is complicated further when the narrative tapestry expands to include local Ku Klux Klan agitator RD Pruitt (Matthew Maher), infuriated by Joe’s behavior as a “race traitor”; Ybor Police Chief Figgis (Chris Cooper), willing to tolerate these larcenous interlopers to a certain point, but no further; and Figgis’ sweet but naïve daughter, Loretta (Elle Fanning), who blossoms into a sin-denouncing, Aimee Semple McPherson-style evangelist.
Lehane masterfully controlled these myriad elements in his novel. Affleck can’t begin to do so, and his film — and his essential portrayal of Joe — collapse beneath the weight of so much melodrama. The story takes on a kitchen sink, what-will-happen-next tone that, frankly, becomes laughable.
All of which is a shame, because many of the individual moments — and performances — are persuasively staged. The soft-spoken Gleeson is a commanding presence, his sad gaze speaking volumes about Thomas’ carefully controlled emotions. As often is the case, Gleeson blows everybody else off the screen, and it’s a shame we see so little of him.
Miller is a thrill-crazed force of nature as the brassy, impertinent and dangerously reckless Emma. Messina, blending tough-guy steel with joviality, gets the script’s few glib one-liners, as the unswervingly loyal Dion. Glenister is flat-out scary, turning White into a giggling psychopath; Girone goes for a different level of terror, making Pescatore cultured, but no less deadly.
Saldana blends grace and an elusive je ne sais quoi as Graciela, her often gently mocking exterior belied by the strong conviction that Joe can be — should be — a better person. She serves as his conscience, and in fact becomes a far better barometer of this story’s moral compass, than Joe himself.
On the other hand, neither Cooper nor Fanning can get a persuasive bead on their characters, both of whom undergo massive psychological shifts. At first blush, Cooper has great fun with Chief Figgis’ moral ambiguity, teasing us much the way the man oh-so-patiently explains the local “facts of life” to Joe. Later, though, Cooper just can’t keep up with Figgis’ unraveling derangement. That bespeaks ineffective direction.
Poor Fanning doesn’t even have a chance, because Loretta doesn’t get enough screen time to chart all of her wild emotional arcs. At least two of her brief scenes are pure what-the-heck? madness ... again, the blame falling squarely on Affleck’s poorly constructed script.
The tech credits are excellent, production designer Jess Gonchor conveying a strong sense of both Prohibition-era Boston, with its random violence; and the muggy, laid-back decadence of Florida’s Ybor, with an undercurrent of racial tension just waiting to explode.
Credit where due, in the first act Affleck and editor William Goldenberg choreograph a breathtaking, excitingly paced bank robbery gone wrong.
Sadly, it’s for naught: This movie is all dressed up, with nowhere to go. The tone and pacing are erratic, and too many of the characters are left fragmentary, like a half-finished paint-by-numbers project. Ultimately, Affleck’s vision simply doesn’t come together.
Lehane — and his many fans — deserved far better.