LIVE BY NIGHT is so sumptuously photographed that it can almost make up for its shortcomings. Based on the novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane, it has weathered its translation by becoming a slight story heinously overblown. It also suffers from too many false endings. So many, in fact, that I can’t vouch that there aren’t more happening even as I type, despite the end credits having crawled by to their finish.
Directed by, adapted by, and starring Ben Affleck, it is a beautiful film to watch. If only it weren’t so languorous where it should be suspenseful despite a profusion of violence, and so scattered when it should be focusing on its through story. The word that floats to mind is infuriating.
Affleck is Joseph Coughlin, an Irish policeman’s (Brenden Gleeson) son who came back to Boston from World War I a changed man. Having seen so many good men die senselessly at the behest of officers, he has decided to never follow an order again. Hence, in a show of rebellion on many levels, he has become a petty criminal, joining forces with two Italians to knock over banks and card games It’s a living, of sorts, until it goes very wrong because Joseph fell in love with the wrong woman. That would be Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), and we relive all this as Joseph ponders how he came to be in a hospital bed with profuse lacerations, cracked ribs, and a broken nose. We learn that the Boston underworld is controlled by two competing factions, the Irish, led by the mildly psychotic Albert White (Robert Glenister) and the Italians, run by the soulfully ruthless Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). Joseph wants nothing to do with either one, but, after his unfortunate hospitalization, finds himself doing just that and for Pescatore in Florida.
Send there to corner the molasses, and hence, the rum market, start a narcotics operation, and open some brothels, Joseph wastes little time in showing the local Good Ol’ Boys who is boss, and learning the lay of the prejudiced land from his former associate, Dion Bartelo (Chris Messina). In a tidy bit of exposition after Joseph arrives, Dion summarized who hates whom among the Latino population, and where the Italians and Catholics fit into the register of hate with the Ku Klux Klan. In another tidy bit of exposition, Joseph also lays eye on Graciella (Zoe Saldana) at that same train station where xxx picks him up. They share short but significant eye contact that signals the steamy affair that will soon ensue despite her being the sister of the local Cuban with a corner on the molasses market.
There is much more plot involved, and a slew of colorful characters, including Anthony Michael Hall as the local businessman who sweats under Joseph’s cool gaze, but not because of the heat; Chris Cooper as the local sheriff, a man who is incorruptible, but extremely practical in the face of the rampant crime going on all around him; and Matthew Maher as the sheriff’s nitwit brother-in-law who has too much pull with the local branch of the KKK to be quickly dismissed.
As Joseph builds his empire, he grapples with questions of morality put to him by Graciella and by Loretta Figgis (Elle Fanning), the sheriff’s daughter turned fundamentalist preacher in the Aimee Semple McPhreson mold. Which, of course, brings a delightfully Cecil B. DeMille brand of sexual sadism to the story, as well as politics, racism, and elitism all conspiring to make Josephs too-tender heart ache with all the bloodshed his line of work requires.
This is a muddled film, but there are, to be fair, strokes of genius, not the least of which is the way Affleck can stage a scene. It’s nothing short of a work of art at times, going from the sterile black and white of Boston, with Gleeson despairing at the side of his son’s hospital bed, a luminous face in cold pale light surrounded by the black of his winter coat and fedora, to the roseate waterways and Technicolor™ sunsets of Florida, pictured so that the very humidity of the air is palpable in all its sinister mystery. If only the film were leaner, if only the bromance between Joseph and the ebullient Dion weren’t more vivid than the romance between Joseph and Graciela; if only the tones didn’t slip so disjointedly between farce and melodrama; if only we were given a plausible reason for Joseph battling through a bloodbath in a white linen suit and not getting a spot of anything on him. Even sweat. If only Affleck as an actor weren’t so unreliable, one moment wooden, the next wonderfully subtle. If only Fanning’s dazzling performance, heartbreaking as a wounded soul who can’t quite embrace the cynicism to which she inclined, weren’t lost amid all this muddle.
LIVE BY NIGHT spared no expense in bringing the Roaring Twenties back to life, including a nifty vintage car chase. That it failed to live up to its window dressing is a shame.