Ben Affleck's Live by Night feeds into the deficit of old-fashioned gangster films in the modern day, yet contributes to the ever-growing pile of forgettable endeavors of the genre that we've been burdened with for long enough. Combining the visual dazzle of The Great Gatsby but mixing in the flaccid and frantic narrative of Gangster Squad, Live by Night struggles to outplay its lavish costume design and become a succinct and engaging story.
Set in 1920s Boston, the film revolves around Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck), an Irish World War I veteran who fell in love with Emma Gould (Sienna Miller) shortly upon his return home. His love ended in tragedy after mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister) found out Emma, his mistress, was seeing Joe. He beat Joe bloody, leaving him for dead and vowed to kill Emma as well. Joe is eventually sent to prison only to be released in three years, where he decides to start up a bootlegging and casino business with his friend Dion (Chris Messina) in Prohibition era America. This is met with opposition from mob forces in addition to religious zealots, particularly Loretta (Elle Fanning), a local preacher, and the daughter of the local Sheriff Irving Figgis (Chris Cooper), who holds elaborate sermons condemning alcohol and fornication.
The opening scenes detail the film's most important relationship and that's Joe's relationship with his father Thomas (Brendan Gleeson). His father is a career police officer, so you can only imagine the tension, disgust, and conflicting impulses that occur when a father finds his criminal son in a gangway, beaten by a notorious crime boss, neither of whom he could arrest and live it down. This seems like a significant relationship that's summarized pretty effectively in just a couple scenes, but the shaping of the Joe character in prison feels lost, as his prison-time is hardly even a meaningful focus in the film.
Live by Night
Ben Affleck, Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson
13 January 2017
Steve's Grade: D+
It doesn't matter because clarity or any kind of lengthy, more character-centered moments are traded for a two hour stroll through some damn-fine production and costume design that the filmmaking crew really want you to take in. Because of this, scenes find themselves plodding along for a longer length of time than they need to, and by the hour-mark, the production design feels like a total hindrance on the film's narrative and structure, which too often feels sloppy and unfocused.
Live by Night is also one of those films that feels like the entire thing actually starts well after an hour into the story. At that time, both Coughlin and Dion are exhausting efforts to build their desired casino, which leads to a frustrated Coughlin telling off one of his associates. Coughlin warns him that the empty promises made to U.S. citizens and immigrants of desired employment and income being something that can be reached over time will come back to haunt men in positions of power if nothing is done. Coughlin cannot obtain proper funding for his project because he's an Irish man, and rampant discrimination against African-Americans, Italians, Latinos, and Hispanics is as rampant and as despicable as ever.
But by the time Live by Night recognizes that, it feels like an after-thought, or another potentially timely theme Affleck undermined in order to focus on glorious wide-angle shots as well as neatly ironed suit-coats and flapper dresses. Affleck gives a stunningly vanilla performance as well, never asserting the kind of conviction nor gruff necessary for his role, while the most notable supporting characters are a depressingly shortchanged Gleeson and the compelling Fanning in an unlikely role. Others like Zoe Saldana and Anthony Michael Hall barely even register a whimper as well.
Live by Night is another period-specific gangster film crushed under the sheer weight of its aesthetics with little in the way of a strong narrative structure or convincing performances to lift it up from unfortunate, if foreseeable, mediocrity. Loud, prolific shootouts contrasted with some gorgeous imagery continue to prove themselves unfit to sustain a film of this runtime, especially when the other moving parts are so haphazardly conveyed.