Live By Night

January, 2017, Drama


Novelist Dennis Lehane has made a made a critically successful career out of writing exciting crime fiction. Some his very best work has focused on a sweeping history of the 1918 Boston Police Strike and what Lehane sees as its aftermath including fate of returning  WW I veterans, the Prohibition Era and this country’s oft-repeated attempts at crippling the union movement. All this is covered in “The Coughlin Trilogy”, named after the novels’ chief protagonist, Tom Coughlin. Ben Affleck purchased the rights to the centerpiece novel of this trio and retained its title in this film produced, directed, written and staring Affleck himself.

Night begins promisingly, with Affleck’s narration of the police strike and his character’s deep cynicism about all authority in the wake of his experiences in the trenches of France. He returns home to a life of armed robbery which brings him to the attention of a local mafia crime boss who sends Coughlan to the oversee a criminal enterprise which includes the production of illegal rum, the distribution of narcotics and a series of speakeasies in the segregated section  of  Tampa known as Ybor City. Coughlin sells his soul as he rises in the syndicate, corrupting others as he drifts closer to an ultimate battle for control of the empire he’s built.

Night’s cast is stellar and the performances of Elle Fanning, Chris Cooper and Brendan Gleeson are especially notable for their quality. But Zoe Saldana’s performance as Coughlin’s lover/wife generates a vortex that begins to pull the movie apart and as complicated plot develops, Affleck the actor gets lost in his role as writer/director, ultimately becoming merely a spectator of the actions in his own life. He’s also chosen the very difficult task of condensing a great deal of detailed storyline which enriched the novel’s prose but clogs the plot which becomes nearly indecipherable by the film’s end.

Despite the sepia-toned efforts of cinematographer Robert Richardson, the crisp editing of William Goldenberg and the evocative production design of Jess Gonechor, Night grows increasingly lifeless and Affleck compounds the film’s weakness with an especially maudlin ending that undercuts its ambitious intentions.

Affleck’s talents are many, but he tried to wear to many hats here.

The Verdict? Handsome to look at, but Affleck ultimately wears too watch.

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