Dennis Lehane

Live By Night

18/01/17

Ben Affleck has already proved his worth as a director – Gone Baby Gone and Argo are just two examples that spring to mind – and adaptations of the novels of Dennis Lehane have already yielded cinematic gold on several occasions, so it’s hard to pin down exactly why Live By Night fails to measure up to expectation. It’s a handsomely mounted production, its 1920s setting lovingly evoked and there’s a stellar cast in evidence, with the likes of Brendan Gleeson, Chris Cooper and Elle Fanning submitting strong performances in what amount to little more than cameo roles. But there’s an overpowering conviction that the film is simply trying to cover too many bases for its own good, that a simpler, more linear narrative  would have exerted a stronger grip on its intended audience.

Affleck plays Irish-American Joe Coughlin, an ‘outlaw’ with his own moral code. As he puts it, he doesn’t mind working for gangsters, he just doesn’t want to be one. Which is, it has to be said,  a fairly nebulous difference. After a violent brush with New York Irish mob boss, Albert White (Robert Glenister), results in a lengthy stay in the chokey, Coughlin goes to work for the Italian mob, run by Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) and finds himself relocating to Florida, where he becomes a major player in the burgeoning rum-running business. He also romances and marries Graciela (Zoe Saldana) and it begins to look as though a pleasant future is assured for both of them. But when Pescatore’s plans for a big casino go awry (largely because of Joe’s refusal to be as villainous as he actually needs to be), it soon becomes clear that there will be the inevitable deadly reckoning…

This is by no means a terrible film and, every now and then, events do spark into fitful life. An early car chase featuring vintage automobiles is decent enough and Elle Fanning’s role as a former heroin addict who turns to religion for salvation is briefly diverting, but too often events become bogged down in a lot of talking and not enough action. And the screenplay seems to want to have a bit of everything, involving as it does the Ku Klux Klan, Latin American swing music and whatever else happens to be wandering across the cinematic horizon. Even the film’s climactic shootout is followed by another half hour of loose ends being tied, all of which goes to dilute its appeal.

Which is a shame because it’s evident that much love and care has gone into the making of Live By Night. A stronger hand in the editing booth would probably have delivered a different viewing experience but, as it stands, this is to be filed under M for ‘Meh.’

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Drop

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16/11/14

Based on a short story by Denis Lehane, The Drop is a slow-burning crime drama that revolves around a seedy bar in Brooklyn. Here, Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy) serves the drinks, under the watchful eye of his cousin Marv (James Gandolphini in his final screen role.) The bar is a regular ‘drop’ for the Chechnyan gang lords who actually own the place, somewhere to deposit illicit money generated by drugs, prostitution, protection rackets… you name it. Over the years, Marv and Bob have learned that it’s safer to just go along with things, rather than bringing the wrath of their employers down on their heads. But when Bob chances upon a badly beaten puppy in a litter bin belonging to Nadia (Noomi Rapace) things get a little more complicated – she is the ex girlfriend of Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenearts) the puppy’s owner and a self-professed killer. It soon becomes clear that Deeds wants his dog (and Nadia) back – he doesn’t seem to make much distinction between the two of them. Then, an armed robbery at the bar relieves the ‘owners’ of $5,000 and it’s inevitable that the Chechnyans are going to want their money back…

Hardy is terrific in the lead role. He seems to be channeling Brando’s memorable turn as boxer Terry Molloy in On The Waterfront, delivering a hugely appealing character that seems as helpless as he is vulnerable. But in Lehane’s world, still waters run deep and there are a couple of twists in the narrative that are sure to take you by surprise. Gandolphini bows out in style, depicting a man who is impelled towards crime, not because of greed but by personal circumstance. This movie shows a side of America that we rarely see on film, an unabashedly blue collar world of grime, debt and criminal corruption. Though it takes its time to reveal the whole story, there’s a constant simmering threat of violence hanging over everything that happens and the conclusion, when it finally arrives, is brutal and shattering.

While in no way a ‘big’ movie, The Drop has a confident, engrossing narrative and is yet another notch in Hardy’s chameleon-like ability to portray characters from all continents and all walks of life. And it serves as a fine farewell for James Gandolphini, to whom the film is respectfully dedicated.

3.9 stars

Philip Caveney