Live by Night (2017) – Movie Review
Live by Night
Directed by: Ben Affleck
Written by: Ben Affleck
Starring: Ben Affleck, Chris Messina, Zoe Saldana, Robert Glenister, Sienna Miller, Brendan Gleeson & Chris Cooper
Music: Harry Gregson-Williams
Release Date: January 13th 2017
It’s hard to think of another recent Hollywood figure who has engineered such a comeback as prominently as Ben Affleck. An Oscar-Winner and Kevin Smith-fixture in the 1990s his career took a turn in the early 2000s when he took on leading roles in critical flops like ‘Daredevil‘ and ‘Pearl Harbor‘ with the nadir of his career happening with the public’s disinterest in his “Bennifer” personal relationship with Jennifer Lopez which lead to the box-office bomb that was ‘Jersey Girl‘ in 2004. But in 2007, Affleck made his directorial debut with ‘Gone Baby Gone‘ and public perception started to favour Affleck as a creative-force again.
Now, cut to 2017 and he’s directed the critical and box-office hit ‘The Town‘, the “Best Picture” Oscar-winning ‘Argo‘ (which also netted him top prizes from the Director’s Guild of America) and the guy is also Batman…in a terrible movie-franchise but he’s great IN them. Living the dream and able to choose any project he wants Affleck has opted to direct, write, produce and act in an adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s critically acclaimed 2012 crime novel “Live By Night”. This prohibition gangster film is a huge passion project of Affleck’s, but has he met his match in regards to the subject matter or is this another Oscar-snub just waiting to happen?
It’s the 1920s and prohibition in the United States is in full effect. The banning of alcohol has created a black market for gangsters and has allowed WW1 vet Joe Coughlin (Affleck) to rise through the ranks of organised crime in Boston. But his relationship with the mistress of crime-lord Albert White (Glenister) unwittingly results in her death and Joe’s incarceration where he gets a lenient sentence due to his father Thomas (Gleeson) being the Boston Police Captain, who also dies whilst Joe is in prison. After being released, Joe wants revenge against Albert and starts to work as an enforcer with a rival crime gang in Tampa, Florida. But in order to increase the group’s influence, Joe must fend off resistance from evangelists, rival businesses and even the K.K.K. with the assistance of Tampa Sheriff Irving Figgis (Cooper).
As you can tell by that plot synopsis there is a LOT of story, a lot of characters and this narrative has a lot of moving parts. I cannot attest to whether or not Dennis Lehane’s book was able to effectively balance all these spinning-plates but Ben Affleck’s adaptation doesn’t entirely get there. The film moves at a good pace and due to its relatively moderate run-time of 129 minutes it never feels dull or lax, but it’s very easy to lose sight of just what the end-game of ‘Live By Night‘ actually is. Once our protagonist Joe Coughlin leaves prison and moves to Florida it feels like the revenge story against Albert White completely loses momentum and despite Joe wanting to confront him being the end-point of the story, White has absolutely no presense or influence over the narrative outside the first 15 minutes and the last 15. A few reminders as to what Joe’s plan actually is would have greatly remedied this, as well as given the movie a sense of purpose outside of “Joe does Gangster Stuff”.
But it’s a testament to ‘Live By Night‘ that it’s able to make that “Gangster Stuff” so interesting. While a lot of the film feels structured like a “Grand Theft Auto” game (Main character meets a supporting character, there’s a short-conversation, he does a mission for 10 minutes and then repeat until Boss Battle) ‘Live By Night‘ gets a lot of mileage of the time period and the setting. The mob’s war with the Ku Klux Klan is the definite highlight, especially since it seems to have the most personal stakes for Joe due to his marriage to the Cuban Graciela Corrales played by Zoe Saldana. Although the marriage is initially difficult to buy because Joe’s motivation for moving to Florida was to avenge the “love of his life” played by Sienna Miller.
And that’s probably the biggest issue with ‘Live By Night‘ as a whole; yes the plot moves along well but the emotions and motivations of the characters never really have any time to breathe. The film takes place over the course of several years though you wouldn’t know it if character’s didn’t outright say it, minor characters are hastily introduced and just as quickly drop off the face of the earth only to be dragged back later (looking at you, Elle Fanning) and characters who feel like they should be vital to Joe’s growth like his crime-partner Dion played by Chris Messina don’t get any character beats to shine or flesh out their relationship. There were behind-the-scenes rumblings that the editing process was haphazard with Ben Affleck stating in interviews that it was difficult due to not wanting the film to be “too long” but maybe if this film had an extra 20-25 minutes it would feel like a much more complete experience.
But let’s review the movie we’ve got and not the one that could have been. It’s incredibly well acted, though actors like Brendan Gleeson, Elle Fanning and Zoe Saldana don’t get much of an opportunity to establish themselves as this is mainly Affleck’s show. Thankfully he’s great, though it can sometimes be pretty funny how he’s practically bursting out of the tight-fitting, broad-shouldered suits he has to wear due to him being so massive (being Batman must have its downsides, right?) but it means that you can believe this guy taking matters into his own hands which, in an era of C.G.I. and rigorously trained stunt-men is becoming something of a rarity. Chris Cooper is great as well and while he doesn’t get as much screen-time as he should, he gets some devastating scenes that only work as well as they do because of his performance.
But ‘Live By Night‘, due to its short runtime and expansive narrative with its vast cast of characters, doesn’t excel when it comes to emotions or stories but through the action and the gangster tropes that we enjoy. Seeing prohibition America from this angle is refreshing (probably its best on-screen depiction since 2012’s ‘Lawless‘), there’s a nail-biting bank robbery and car chase at the beginning, Batman fighting the Ku Klux Klan is very satisfying to watch (as well as pretty terrifying because they really emphasise that Klansman could be respected pillars of a community, bosses, bankers, judges etc. demonstrating that racism of this extent can be hiding in plain sight) and regardless of the overall quality of the movie a scene where Joe confronts a trio of Klansman under the cover of night will down as one of Affleck’s best pieces of directing. Oddly enough, in light of my comparison to “Grand Theft Auto” earlier, I would love to see this source material adapted into a 30-hour open-world-style video-game in the vein of “Mafia” or “L.A. Noire” to really give the story time to breathe and to explore this meticulously re-created 1920s environment.
Due to the period setting, terrific attention to detail, huge array of costumes, hairstyles, vehicles and props on display ‘Live By Night‘ looks almost double its $65M production budget. Shot on gorgeous 65mm film (thank you, Arri Alexa 65!) this is a slick, thoroughly modern-looking gangster film. The film’s emphasis on montage may be a little much but it gives us some great vistas to enjoy on the big-screen. ‘Hail, Caesar!‘ production designer Jess Gonchor and his team did a great job turning modern-day Georgia into 1920s Florida and Affleck reunites with ‘Gone Baby Gone‘ and ‘The Town‘ composer Harry-Gregson-Williams to gives us a melancholic and era-appropriate score. Looking forward to seeing what Gregson-Williams does with ‘The Batman‘ (if he stays attached to the project in the wake of Affleck’s directorial-departure).
‘Live By Night‘ is a slick, ambitious and well-acted prohibition gangster-drama but with this subject matter Ben Affleck may have bitten off more than he can chew. It’s a huge story with a huge cast but thanks to sloppy editing and a truncated runtime the movie doesn’t hit the notes it clearly wants to and doesn’t leave much of a lasting impact outside of its great production-values and some terrific isolated sequences (“Then what the hell am I talking to you for?”) but once its abrupt ending rolls around it makes you wonder just what it was about this material that Affleck was so passionate about, because it doesn’t feel like that substance is up on screen.
I give ‘Live By Night‘ 3 stars out of 5.
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Posted: 2nd Mar 17