Live By Night (2016, USA, d. Ben Affleck, 128 minutes)
by Noah Damron
As the poster child for career comebacks, Ben Affleck has proved himself to one of the best Directors working in Hollywood. With three masterful films Gone Baby Gone, The Town and Best Picture winner Argo, one would expect nothing short of greatness with his next directorial effort, Live by Night. Although I wouldn’t go as far as to say Live by Night is a misfire, it’s surely a step backwards for the director.
Adapting the Dennis Lehane novel of the same name, Affleck stars as Joe Coughlin, a WWI vet turned gangster. We first see Coughlin with his crew, lead by his loyal pal Dion Bartolo (an unrecognizable Chris Messina), knocking off several banks, while also trying to keep out of the mob war between the Italians and Irish. At the same time, trying to please his Police Deputy father (Brenden Gleeson) and carry on his affair with Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), the mistress of Irish mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister).
All of this is introduced in the first act and resolved in roughly 30 minutes where Coughlin ends up serving three years in prison, gets out and tries to reboot his life by heading to Tampa to work for Italian mob boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), controlling the Rum circuit. All while falling in love with Graciella Surarez (Zoe Saldana). Affleck even manages to thrown in a subplot involving the local sheriff (Chris Cooper) and his born-again Preacher daughter (the scene stealing Elle Fanning), while ALSO taking time to solve a conflict between the local KKK members. If all this sounds complicated, it’s because it is.
Affleck and cinematographer Robert Richardson manage to bring the 1920’s and 30’s to life beautifully. Not only is this one of the best looking films of 2016 (it opened in limited release on Christmas), but it’s one of the best looking gangster films ever made. The detail in not only the cinematography, but the production design is just flawless. And when it comes to action, Affleck films it with great suspense and style.
The supporting cast all give great performances. Apart from Chris Messina who donned 40 extra pounds for the role, the biggest scene stealer has to be Elle Fanning. Not only does her subplot go in an unexpected direction, but she commands every frame she’s in. Between this and the criminally underrated The Neon Demon, Fanning proves herself to be one of the best young actors around and not to be shadowed by her older sister (Dakota Fanning). But where the supporting cast shines, the lead does not, which leads to the films biggest weakness, which is Affleck himself.
Working not only as the lead, but director, writer and producer, Affleck is simply doing too much. He excels again as a director, but the script is sorely underwritten and his portrayal as Joe Coughlin lacks the edge needed for such a character. Although he’s not bad in the role, Affleck is miscast. Should he have taken himself out of the cast and focused more on the script, the film certainly would’ve faired better.
The script is so overstuffed with characters and plot elements, there’s enough here for several films. Instead it’s all crammed into a two hour film, that feels like an edited down mini-series.
Given all it’s flaws, I was never bored with Live by Night. The surrounding performances are all great, the action is exciting and hard-hitting and the cinematography and production design are something to behold. Plus, in this day and age, who can pass up seeing the KKK get taken down.
Live by Night is a gangster epic that is both overstuffed and underwritten, but features some fantastic performances, exciting and stylish action sequences and amazing production design and cinematography. If you view this film as a fun throwback to old gangster films, you’ll have a good time, but unfortunately, that’s all it is.