Live by Night

LIVE BY NIGHT,  US, 2016.  Starring Ben Affleck, Elle Fanning, Remo Girone, Brendan Gleeson, Robert Glenister, Matthew Maher, Chris Messina, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper, Titus Welliver, Max Casella. Directed by Ben Affleck.  129 minutes.  Rated MA (Strong coarse language).

 There has been a long tradition of gangster films, beginning in the late 1920s and early 1930s when the action of this film takes place. Most of these films were set in cities like Chicago and in the midwest, the Al Capone tradition, Texas outlaws and the robbing of banks in the West like Bonnie and Clyde. This film is of particular interest because it is about gangsters in Boston, Florida and the East Coast.

 Something to commend it at once is that it is based on a novel by Dennis Lehane. There have been film versions of his novels, Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island. This one has been adapted by Ben Affleck who serves as writer, director, producer and the main star. Affleck has proven his directing skills with Gone Baby Gone, The Town and Argo.

 This is a more thoughtful gangster film, giving the audience time to experience the situations and background, get to know the characters and try to understand them, time for a bit of reflection – which might mean that those who prefer chases and shootouts (and, in fact, there are some) feeling a bit impatient.

 Ben Affleck plays Joe, the narrator, who in the prologue, explains that he went to fight in France in World War I and came back determined not to take orders in life any more. When we see his father, a police Commissioner played strongly by Brendan Gleeson, we understand that family and the war experience have had a strong influence on Joe. Small robberies are the order of the day. It comes to the attention of the Boston Irish Mafia as well as the Boston Italian Mafia, complicating things by an affair with the girlfriend of the Irish boss, Sienna Miller.

In one of the robberies and chases, policemen are killed so Joe goes to jail, responding to an offer he finds he cannot refuse from the Italians – which leads him to Tampa, Florida, quite a contrast in sunlight and heat from the chill of Boston. He goes with his friend and ally, Dion (Chris Messina) and, they make more of a go of it given the clients, the bootlegging, the money coming in and sent to Massachusetts, and the prospect of building a casino. Tampa is something of a backwater compared with Miami but it is Joe’s kingdom. He falls in love with a local Hispanic girl, Graciela, Zoe Saldana.

 One of the consequences of Joe’s success has a touch of revenge in damaging the interests of the Irish Mafia in Miami.

One of the interesting sub- plots concerns the police chief of Tampa, Chris Cooper, his young daughter being invited to Hollywood for a screen test, Elle Fanning, and her disastrous experience there, coming back and becoming an evangelist against corruption, always dressed in white, a tent preacher with big congregations, and her denunciation of gambling and casinos.

 Which, of course, leads to difficulties for Joe, the building of the local casino and investment from local bankers, the powers that be in Boston not taking at all lightly. And there are further complications with the local Ku Klux Klan, with crosses of fire planted outside the bars, negotiations and betrayals with the Klan leaders, and a build up to violence all round – and Joe using his wits but having to make decisions for his future.

The film is quite long but always interesting, though not the kind of Scorsese gangster portrait that tends to set the screen alight. But, this dramatising of US East Coast gangsters makes its mark.

Village- Roadshow       Released January 26th

Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

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