Boston, with its prestigious academics and rich sense of culture, doesn’t seem completely deserving of its cinematic reputation as a decaying den of iniquity, but there’s no denying the gritty, gloomy atmosphere in which nearly every “Boston film” of the past five years has been cloaked. The Town, The Departed, Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone – all of them paint the city with a devastating brush, populating it with characters who seem constantly at a breaking point, ready to bubble over from seething anger to vicious violence.
By the Gun shares most of its DNA with those aforementioned crime thrillers. Like them, its characters are of the rough-and-tumble variety, cursing like sailors in thick accents, and walking through the city streets with slightly stooped shoulders as if carrying unseen weight. Also like them, its story communicates timeless messages of masculinity, family, sacrifice and the “good life.” It’s a gangster movie, though it toys with expectations of that subgenre, and screenwriter Emilio Mauro (a Massachusetts native) makes sure we know it’s a Boston gangster movie with his rapid-fire dialogue and the prominent North End setting.
Where the film is most interesting, however, is also where it departs from its obvious inspirations (which also include the works of Sidney Lumet, especially Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, and Goodfellas). Mauro and director James Mottern portray the city’s mafia not as a swaggering, seductive empire but as a degenerating, deserted shell. Gone are the days of cigar-chomping kingpins and intoxicating invincibility – in By the Gun, the mafia is on its way out, killed not by the law but by weariness. The movies are one thing, but real life is a whole lot less sexy.
To most, the Family business has lost its luster – but not to Nick Tortano (Ben Barnes). Nick, born and raised in Boston, still clings to the same vision of the almighty mafia that hypnotized Henry Hill back in the ’50s. He’s ambitious, cunning and silver-tongued, with his sights set on becoming a made man. And after years of working his way up through the criminal underworld, Nick finally catches the attention of those venerated Italian gangsters (led by Harvey Keitel, of course). Once he’s in, though, things get messy. His best friend George (Slaine) complicates an already-tense relationship with a rival mob boss (Ritchie Coster), and a romance blossoms between Nick and the rival’s lovely daughter (Leighton Meester).
From there, it doesn’t take much to guess that things don’t go well for Nick. “I live and die by the gun and knife,” he numbly recites during his induction ceremony, an ominous statement that effectively communicates the film’s matter-of-fact nastiness. By the Gun isn’t concerned with the mafia fantasy so much as what happens to people like Nick, who fall for it hook, line and sinker. And it’s not pretty
Unfortunately, with that in mind, it takes much longer than it should for Nick’s problems to really catch up with him. Too much of By the Gun, just waiting for that moment of impact, feels like dead air, and Mottern’s restrained direction isn’t engaging enough on its own to pick up the narrative slack. The actors do their best to inject real energy into the film’s regrettably sluggish first two-thirds, especially Slaine (another native, and it shows). He makes George alternately likable and absolutely terrifying in a way that calls to mind Jeremy Renner’s volatile criminal in The Town. Barnes, meanwhile, is convincing in the lead role, and that the heartthrob actor is able to handle a less-heroic role comes as a pleasant surprise.
Some scenes do work – one confrontation between Nick and George, with a man’s life hanging in the balance, positively crackles with nervous energy, and the actors are better together than anywhere else in the movie. As a whole, though, By the Gun doesn’t do right by that punchy title. A lot of it is a drawn-out waiting game, less slow-burn than just slow.
Luckily, when lines are crossed and Nick realizes just how in over his head he actually is, By the Gun gets a much-needed shot of adrenaline, emerging as a genuinely gripping thriller. That’s only in the film’s final third, though – the rest of By the Gun settles for by-the-numbers plot progression. Mauro and Mottern eventually strike a winning balance, but one wishes better care had been taken in the editing room to move things along with a little more force. By the Gun deserves credit for trying something a little different, but the results of its experiment are a mixed bag.
Certain scenes in By the Gun pack a powerful punch, but it doesn't coalesce into a satisfying whole.