Friday, 13 January 2017

Live by Night


Ben Affleck returns to the work of Dennis Lehane by adapting Live By Night, one third of a period trilogy within the author's wider, masterful collection of flinty Boston-noir tomes that has given rise to the likes of Shutter Island, Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone. 


The latter was the basis of Affleck's directorial debut, setting the stage for two further efforts – both featuring himself in the lead role – with the Oscar-winning Argo and The Town, a terrifically muscular heist drama mining much from the Beantown milieu so familiar to fans of Lehane's work. 


A sleeker beast than The Given Day, its mammoth prequel, Live By Night centres on the adventures of Affleck's Boston outlaw Joe Coughlin (a child in the first novel). Coughlin is a relatively low-level thief – though he springs from an ostensibly respectable family and wears the sheen of a Catholic education – who, as is the way of these tales, falls in with the wrong girl (Sienna Miller) and then, of course, ends up on the bad side of her crime boss lover, Albert White (Robert Glenister).


Finding himself in prison, Coughlin vows revenge and upon his release entreats Remo Girone's mafia don, Maso Pescatore, to back him in his bid for retribution against White. Coughlin is swiftly dispatched to fortify Pescatore's rum operation in prohibition-era Florida, next to old stickup partner Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina on crackling form), and quickly establishes himself as a giant in the South's criminal underworld.




Or so he says. As passable as Live By Night is in many respects, the film makes the fatal decision to tell and not do. Affleck's flat Boston twang narrates events by way of exposition, overlaying significant periods of time that are barely explored or depicted solely via brief montages. In just over two hours, the director covers the better part of a decade; it feels like barely ten minutes. 

While the question of Coughlin's innate goodness constitutes a major strand of the narrative, the violence of his occupation – referenced in the occasionally earnest dialogue more than once  seems abstract. When it does flare up, such as during the closing hotel-set firefight, the savagery would appear almost casual and, strangely for a picture aiming itself firmly at the gangster genre's heart, out of place. It is almost as if Affleck has committed to making so lovely a piece of cinema (this is, undoubtedly, a beautifully rendered, assuredly acted film) that the darker elements have been neglected. 


Consequently, a host of themes end up competing for time: faith and family (personified by Elle Fanning and Chris Cooper's tortured zealots), race and prejudice, vengeance and murder, corruption and criminality. Each rears its head as the overarching message; all fail to emerge victorious. In concert, the effect is a somewhat untidy lack of focus. The movie could be compelling, though it is ultimately distracted by its own diverging ambitions. 


Affleck has not produced an utter disaster by any means and there are enough flourishes to impress – an early car chase involving roaring Model Ts and coppers wielding tommy guns registers as particularly excellent. His nod to the multi-ethnic composition of 1920s Tampa is also interesting and Coughlin's Celtic outsider is often cast as the exotic flower in the garden. 

Nevertheless, a finale that accomplishes the rare feat of rushing and crawling to its conclusion is clumsily handled, carrying the weariness of a party that really wants to end.



Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Silence

Religious symbolism has always been central to the work of Martin Scorsese. From Boxcar Bertha to Dalai Lama biopic Kundun, with Mean Streets, Cape Fear and, of course, The Last Temptation of Christ in between, Scorsese, the one-time seminarian, has never shirked from matters spiritual.
His latest movie, Silence, is arguably an apogee of this ever-evolving relationship with religion. In gestation since 1990, and long considered a passion project, this is the second filmic adaptation of the novel by Shusaku Endo, published in 1966, which centres on the travails of Portuguese Jesuits in 17th-century Japan. Boasting weighty overtones and themes of sacrifice, contrition and faith, there can be no denying Scorsese’s direction of travel.
The result of the director’s efforts is, as one might expect, a monumental, courageous historical epic, as powerful as it is arduous. Silence simply cannot be ignored.
The picture’s holy trinity is delivered in the shape of Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), Francisco Garrpe (a superb Adam Driver) and the duo’s erstwhile mentor, Liam Neeson’s Cristóvão Ferreira. When reports filter back to the Society of Jesus that Ferreira has, under torture during the anti-Christian purges of the Tokugawa shogunate, disavowed God, Rodrigues and Garrpe are dispatched by their superior, Father Valignano (Ciarán Hinds), to search for truth in the murk of a Japanese society insanely hostile to Christ’s teachings.
The chronicle of their quest is an astonishing one. Scorsese weaves a tapestry of tribulation and torment, plunging his idealistic padres into an unforgiving landscape, one that immediately tests their learning and adherence to the power of the almighty.
This is a tale made for the big screen, luxuriating in its director’s archly cinematic tendencies, yet there is little effort here to toy with the structure. Instead, a largely straightforward plot’s challenges arrive via a focus on the meaning and efficacy of blind acceptance.
Scorsese does not linger in bringing it to the fore. His opening scene features Neeson (the white whale of the piece’s 161-minute running time), broken and detained, witnessing a band of fellow missionaries undergoing one of the shogunate’s many inventive methods of torture — subtlety is no obstacle.
Indeed the trials of Rodrigues and Garrpe seem just as intense. Landing under the cover of night, they immediately begin ministering to the Christians who greet them. Forced to cower behind closed doors and conceal their practices from all but a few, these haunted natives receive their European visitors as saviours, a reality that, at first fulfils the young priests, only to turn sour when the local inquisitor, enacting the nation-wide pogrom against the ‘Kirishitans’, sniffs out this evangelising.
From this point, events become increasingly fraught. Garfield, an assured presence, carries the bulk of the film on his shoulders. Forced to answer for his steel-clad convictions, even in the face of others’ suffering, he soon begins to ruminate on those ideas. ‘The weight of your silence is terrible,’ Rodrigues whispers towards heaven, the once high walls of his faith shaking beneath the weight of doubt. Scorsese pulls no punches in dragging him towards the edge, capturing moments of savagery with an unblinking eye. Men are decapitated, martyrs are crucified and drowned; families form human pyres as their neighbours watch on.
More unsettling is the frigid calculation behind these cruelties. The authorities do not seek to terrify, rather they wish to humiliate and degrade, using the tenet of sacrifice against the very people who so willingly espouse it. Later on, Tadanobu Asano’s urbane translator squirrels inside Rodrigues’s mind, questioning the sense of his beliefs with calm efficiency. This is no story of Christendom’s triumph over the distant unbelievers. The opposite is underlined more than once: while the Japanese readily grasp Christianity’s precepts, they’re simply not interested in embracing them.
As a work of artistic endeavour, the film ably succeeds. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto conjures more than one arresting image, be it a floating overhead view of the priests’ sea vessel, the Messiah’s visage in a reflecting pool or the mist-shrouded verdancy of rural Japan. 
On a more profound level, however, Scorsese’s commitment allows for an immersion in the material that other filmmakers might otherwise fail to accomplish. Silence is no easy watch, but, with a multitude of urgent questions demanding equally urgent answers, it is an essential one.

This article was first published here