Dennis Lehane's slick and fun and nasty 2012 gangster novel "Live by Night" gets trimmed down for director-star and screenplay-adaptor Ben Affleck's movie. But even though some choice scenes have been eliminated (hey, this isn't a 10-part TV film), the heart of the book is still there, and the script is skillfully put together.
This is the second time Affleck has adapted and directed a Lehane book, the first one being "Gone, Baby, Gone," starring his brother Casey, and he's becoming tighter and more at ease in the director's chair, both visually and with his actors.
Set in 1920s Boston, it's about Joe Coughlin (Affleck) a directionless fellow who's taken up a life of petty crime, despite the fact that his father (Brendan Gleeson) is Deputy Superintendent with the Boston Police, a man who knows of his son's activities but begrudgingly turns his eyes away.
Joe's exploits are noticed by a couple of men who are high up on the local criminal scene: Albert White (Robert Glenister), who runs the Irish mob, and Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), who runs the Italian mob. Sworn enemies, they each make it clear to Joe they they'd like -- that they WANT -- him to be on their team, but he makes it equally clear that "I don't want to be part of that life."
You just know that's not going to hold for long, and in short order, via some good old-fashioned blackmail -- and there's a woman involved -- he does become a team player for one of them. Complications ensue, involving, yes, that woman: Emma (an unrecognizable Sienna Miller). But before Joe and Emma can skip town together, he has one last bank job to do. The results here include a whole lot of violence, the strange experience of watching some beautiful vintage autos get wrecked up in a car chase (one of the reasons this is so successful at being a realistic period film, maybe the best since "Hard Times"), and Joe starting life over again behind bars.
One of the pleasures of this film is that some major characters vanish -- I won't reveal who -- then show up later on to add both surprise and depth to the story. That's all Lehane's doing, and Affleck has wisely left those ingredients intact.
Upon release from the hoosegow Joe takes up where he left off ... sort of. It turns out that the other mob boss, the one he didn't go to work for, still wants him on his payroll, but it won't be in Boston; it'll be in warm, sunny Florida, in the Ybor section of Tampa, where he is to operate the illegal East Coast rum business and, in his spare time, keep an eye out for his former mobster boss, who has since been run out of Boston.
It would be simple to again say that complications ensue, but there's nothing simple about them. In what becomes a study of how Joe builds himself up from a nobody to an important man (there are shades of Al Pacino's Tony from "Scarface"), he must deal with some problematic people and situations. There's the local sheriff (Chris Cooper), a man who stays on the side of the law but he, too, knows when to turn his eyes; his innocent young daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning, in a remarkable and risky performance); the local brother and sister rum-running team of Esteban and Graciela Suarez (Miguel J. Pimentel and Zoe Saldana); and members of the Ku Klux Klan, the most dangerous of which is the slimy R.D. Pruitt (Matthew Maher), probably the most dangerous guy in a film full of dangerous guys.
There's a point where you just want to grab Joe by the lapels, shake him, and tell him to stop getting involved with the wrong women. But when he stares at them, and they stare back, there's no stopping anyone. But you wouldn't really want to. Those parts of the film are as strong and important as the violence, the period details and, on a lighter note, the natty fashion sense of Joe.
-- Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now.
"Live by Night"
Written and directed by Ben Affleck
With Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Elle Fanning, Chris Cooper, Brendan Gleeson