Sunday 29 January 2017

Live By Night by Lehane and Affleck

Dennis Lehane is a distinguished American crime novelist. He wrote for the TV series The Wire and many of his books and stories have been snapped up by the movies. The best of these, by a considerable distance, is The Drop, which Lehane adapted himself.

But films of his books include Clint Eastwood's Mystic River, Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island and, much the best of this trio, Gone, Baby, Gone which starred Casey Affleck and was directed by Casey's brother Ben who also co-wrote the screenplay.

Now Ben Affleck has adapted Lehane's Live By Night. He's written the screenplay (solo this time), directed it and stars. It's a gangster movie in the classic mould, by which I mean it's set in the time of Prohibition — the golden age of American gang crime.

Indeed Lehane's title echoes They Live By Night, a botched 1946 film adaptation of the finest novel about the crime of this era, Edward Anderson's Thieves Like Us. Thieves Like Us was distinctive in that it actually eschewed the gangs and concentrated on the more romantic independent operators... which is to say, bank robbers.

That's how Affleck's movie starts, too, with his character Joe Coughlin resisting overtures to join a gang and continuing to knock over banks. But soon enough he's been forced to sign up with the mob and the movie shifts from wintery 1920s Boston to Ybor City in Tampa.

This is where Live By Night really gets started. The freshness of the Florida location — I've never seen it in a period gangster movie, save for a brief visit to Miami in The Godfather II — is a tremendous asset, with the molasses coming in from the Caribbean to be turned into rum, and an interesting new racial angle in the form of Cuban interests.

The movie is somewhat reminiscent of the excellent TV series Boardwalk Empire, particularly in the presence of the Ku Klux Klan as a threat. The connection seems all the more natural when you realise Lehane has written for Boardwalk.

Ben Affleck is as effective as ever in the lead role, but it's the distaff cast of Live By Night which is especially memorable. Joe Coughlin's love interests consists of Sienna Miller as a treacherous Irish minx and Zoe Saldana as a slinky Cuban princess. 

Scoring particularly strongly is Elle Fanning. It's a relief to see her in a better role after being so ill served by Neon Demon. Though it would be nice if one day she plays a character who doesn't suffer quite so much.

Live By Night is a distinctive, engrossing and bloody tale which ultimately proves very satisfying. As screenwiter and director Affleck does impressively well. However, it pales in comparison to The Town, a modern day crime story set in Boston, which he also scripted, directed and starred in.

The Town was something of a modern classic. Live By Night doesn't  quite reach those heady heights. But if you're in the market for a period gangster movie of the classic variety, Live By Night really delivers the goods.

(Image credits: Only two posters at Imp Awards. The book cover is from New DVD Releases. The nice white and green poster, apparently by Robert Dorian, is from Poster Spy, as is the nice quad — the horizontal version of the official poster. The vintage They Live By Night poster is from IMDB.)

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