Director: Ben Affleck
Writer: Ben Affleck
Stars: Ben Affleck, Chris Messina, Elle Fanning, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana
While we’re all waiting for Ben Affleck to finish the project we really want to see (WHERE’S BATMAN BEN?), he’s been working diligently on another film since 2012. Based on a novel by the same name by Dennis Lehane, Live by Night was set up to have a go at being the next great gangster epic. Written, directed by, and starring Affleck, supported by a star-studded cast, edited by William Goldenberg (Gone Baby Gone and Argo), and produced by Leonardo DiCaprio. But pedigree doesn’t always equal quality, and unfortunately the names behind this movie make the fact that it falls flat all the more disappointing
Violence: Violent scenes are spread throughout the film’s runtime, primarily at the beginning and end. There is heavy use of guns, and plenty of blood and bullet holes to go with them. Many of the bullet wounds are pretty gruesome. There are also a couple instances of intense physical beatings.
Language/Crude Humor: The film has its way with The Big Book of Curse Words. For anyone trying to avoid strong language this is pretty much a non-starter. To accompany the curse words are plenty of racist epithets and jokes, mostly used by the film’s antagonists.
Sexual Content: There are multiple short sex scenes and some brief female nudity.
Drug/Alcohol Use: The movie is about bootleggers, and alcohol is accordingly present. Heavy heroin use by one of the characters is referenced through track marks on her arms.
Spiritual Content: Features a pastor expressing significant doubt about the existence of God and Heaven, who <SPOILER> soon commits suicide </SPOILER>. The church plays a significant role in the later parts of the film and presents views that many Christians hold. The film stops short of attacking those views but definitely does not present the church in a positive light.
Positive Content: Affleck’s character gets into a few tussles with the KKK and takes some time to bash their ideology, which is neat.
Set in the 1920s and 30s, our tale centers on one Joe Coughlin (Affleck), a World War I veteran who prefers crime to honest work. The son of the Boston police superintendent, Joe enjoys some freedom from the prying eyes of the law. Joe happens to be engaging in a love affair with Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), girlfriend of the local kingpin of the Irish Mob, Albert White (Robert Glenister). Joe and Emma decide to run off to California, but not before going after one last score.
Unbeknownst to our protagonist, one of the cardinal rules of film is that the last score can never go off without a hitch. Live by Night is no exception to this, and things soon fall apart, with Joe spending three years in jail and Emma nowhere to be found, presumed dead. Upon his release, Joe embarks on a quest for revenge that takes him to Florida under the employ of the Italian mob. There he proliferates the sale of the demon rum and sinks further and further into the criminal underworld.
Visually, Live by Night does a pretty great job. Affleck is a proven director and does well with both the heated conversations (of which there are many) and the action sequences. From an aesthic perspective, I really appreciate that we only spend the first act in Boston. It’s not often we get to see a gangster movie not set in Boston or New York, let alone a prohibition-era one.
Moving to Florida from those cities gives us more colors than brown and gray. You get your early Fords, your Tommy Guns, flapper dresses, and the like, but you also get things like the the sun and grass, which makes for a pleasant southern backdrop to all the gang violence. Another standout is the slow-moving interludes Affleck uses to mark the passage of time. The film’s visual appeal is significant, but not enough to make up for all the loose narrative threads all over the floor.
Couglin initially arrives in Florida as part of a plot for revenge. However, the film contains small plot threads for the majority of its runtime, most of them small stories that pop up and the dissipate without having had a real impact. Perhaps it’s due to the transfer of a decades-spanning novel into just over two hours (which still felt too long), but the movie feels directionless. It commits neither to telling one compelling story with side-plots nor does it commit to being a series of vignettes with a connecting thread. For many of these plots the story is dropped just as things are beginning to take shape. Coughlin comes into conflict with a lot in this film: Racism, religion, gangs, the law, his own gray morality, but we don’t spend enough time with most of these things for these stories to have their intended impact.
Live by Night tries to make a lot of points alongside its plots and, like the threads they’re attached to, these mostly don’t hold up. You can tell that the movie wants to say something about crime, personal freedom, the American Dream, and a myriad of other things. However, without the time that these topics require the movie has trouble sticking the landing. It’s easily feasible that had he tried to fit less in, Affleck could have made some poignant observations. The movie suffers from a lack of focus, and were it to be tightened up it could have been something special.
The cast does an admirable job for the most part, with Elle Fanning as the standout in a smaller but vital role as Loretta Figgis, the daughter of the Ybor City police chief. Chris Messina brings in some humorous moments as Coughlin’s booze-running partner Dion Bartolo. His banter with Affleck made for some of my favorite moments of the film. On the flipside, Zoe Saldana, as Couglin’s new love interest Graciela Suarez, is tragically wasted. Initially interesting, Saldana’s character is relegated to the sidelines soon after we meet her despite being one of the few characters present for the majority of Coughlin’s story.
Affleck himself is serviceable but nothing special. Despite his having written it, the script doesn’t call for any moments that might lend themselves to a standout performance on Affleck’s part. As a character, Couglin vassilates between affable guy who happens to be on the wrong side of an unjust law and cold-blooded killer. Affleck can play both of these extremes well, but not quite well enough to overcome the narrative dissonance these shifts create.
Live by Night is by no means a bad movie. It’s beautifully shot, and a number of its plots, however fleeting, are pretty engrossing. However, an A-list cast can’t overcome paper-thin characters, and skilled direction doesn’t cover for a film being so narratively and thematically unfocused. The saddest part is that it’s apparent that had Affleck elected to only include the essentials in his adaptation, presenting a tightly focused story with less asides and more time for the characters and ideas to flourish, then this movie probably would have been great, and just in time for award season. As is, however, that knowledge just makes the film that much more disappointing.
The Bottom Line