‘Live by Night’ Review

From contributing film critic Andrew Gaudion  

The work of Ben Affleck the director has been nothing short of brilliant with the one, two, three combo of Gone Baby Gone, The Town and Argo. He has demonstrated a great amount of skill in constructing stories of razor sharp tension, populated with flawed and interesting characters. With Argo winning best picture, Affleck must have found himself in the privileged position of being able to choose his next project and be guaranteed a distributor. That distributor is Warner Bros., and Affleck has taken the opportunity to make a lavish gangster picture in much the same vein of the Warner classics of the 1930s (think 1931’s Little Caesar and 1938’s Angels with Dirty Faces). Unfortunately, this love letter to a bygone era has come to represent easily his weakest film yet as the man behind the camera, but don’t worry, it’s no Gigli.

Affleck stars as Joe Coughlin, the son of a police captain, who becomes disillusioned with authority following his time in the Army during the First World War, taking on a life of petty crime in his hometown of Boston upon his return. His love affair with Emma (Sienna Miller), the girlfriend of an Irish mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister), soon sees him landed in prison, embittered and with a hunger for revenge. Once released, he sets to work for a rival Italian mob, with the hope of eventually getting his vengeance on White. Soon though, he sees himself taking an active role in the family’s business, particularly when he is sent to Florida to oversee their vested interests.

Live by Night, based on a Denis Lehane novel, has all the trademarks that you would expect from a prohibition-era-soaked gangster flick. There’s the metaphor-heavy voice-over, tommy guns, wide-brim hats, femme fatales, speakeasies, you name it. Yet, while the genre dressings are clear and defined, the film itself never settles into a comfortable groove in which to tell its tale of morally corrupt men and women. First it sets out to be a revenge thriller, then it transitions into a ‘rise to power’ narrative, all the while addressing racial prejudice and conflicts regarding religion and organised crime. It takes on an awful lot and is often not sophisticated enough to see much of it through with the necessary conviction.

There are certainly moments when it hits a certain stride, particularly when the film first moves to Tampa and Joe finds himself faced with hostility from the likes of the KKK as he tries to capitalise on the movement of rum in Florida. Some of what occurs is utterly ridiculous, but the film does often have a lot of fun with the pulpier aspects of its stuffed narrative.

Affleck as director certainly comes off better than Affleck the actor and screenwriter throughout the proceedings. The film is beautifully shot by Robert Richardson, making strong use of the contrast between the chilly streets of Boston and the sun-soaked swamps of Tampa, Florida. Much of the action set-pieces sizzle as well, with a great model-T Ford car chase closing the first act and a rattling shoot-out in the final act, both easily standing as some of the finer moments of the film, as well as exhibiting Affleck’s significant strengths as a filmmaker.

He has also surrounded himself with a tremendous cast, many of whom are given fleeting supporting roles, but aim to leave a mark in the time awarded to them. Chris Cooper and Elle Fanning particularly stand out as the aged sheriff and his young born-again Christian daughter, the two characters who seem to get under Coughlin’s skin the most, testing his moral code in surprising ways. It is the strength of Cooper and Fanning’s performances that do much of the heavy lifting when it comes to establishing this intriguing, and ultimately fatal dynamic.

However, Affleck’s latest tale of a good guy doing bad things in an even worse world simply cannot settle on what kind of movie it wants to be. The script often stutters like one of those old model-T’s, proving to be an adaptation that simply hasn’t translated the sprawling novel from page to screen all that effectively. It is a piece of pulp fiction that often thinks of itself as a prestige picture, which makes for too many moments of unintentional hilarity. Fuggedaboutit.

2.5 Stars (2.5 / 5)

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(Photos copyright: Appian Way, Pearl Street Films, Warner Bros.)

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