Review: LIVE BY NIGHT, Ben Affleck's Uneven Gangster Epic
Ben Affleck directed and stars in LIVE BY NIGHT, co-starring Elle Fanning, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana and Chris Cooper.
For Live by Night, Ben Affleck returns to the directing chair for the first time since the highly-acclaimed Argo (2012) and proves he has lost none of his directing chops. Almost polar opposite from that tense, realistic depiction of a real-world event, in Live by Night Affleck presents a post-WWI America with as much artifice in style and panache, so much so that it warrants a return to classical Hollywood.
Comparing both films and his debut Gone Baby Gone, it is clear that Affleck is certainly a gifted director with a thorough understanding of the craft. In Live by Night however, he really goes for broke and attempts a gangster epic that utilizes tropes and clichés first seen in much better films of the same ilk. The results are mixed, but certainly not damning.
The film is adapted from the same author as Affleck’s first feature; Dennis Lehane continues to inspire, and Affleck sticks very closely to the source material, never treading on toes. After all, this is his passion project.
While Gone Baby Gone was a subtle neo-noir, Live by Night is a manufactured Hollywood construct. Although he directs with sophistication, Affleck also stars as the dubious protagonist Joe Coughlin, complete with dodgy accent and all. Joe, initially a freelance criminal, joins an Italian gang, who have a binary enemy in the despicable mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister). Trouble finds its way to Joe via a femme fatale moll named Emma (Sienna Miller). After the dust settles, Joe finds himself in sunny Tampa, Florida, where he runs a rum operation for the Italians.
The film offers an uncomplicated glimpse into the Prohibition Era and its politics that do not even scratch the surface, and although it does not shy away from some post-WWI barbarism and racism, it never reaches the authenticity it is going for. It is here in Florida that Joe deals with many fascinating problems; from a born-again heroin addict preacher (Elle Fanning) to the Cubans and the KKK.
Despite the very engaging plot, Affleck plays his role as Joe in a dozy and dour way, quietly mumbling his way through the majority of the running time, injecting none of the charisma his directing talents suggest. He also tries to imply that there is a deeper message in this pulpy mash-up. His story is that of a good-guy gangster, a contradiction from the first frame that is hard to overlook and is the weakest element. The supporting cast is mostly excellent; they have fascinating, even bizarre side-stories that mingle into Joe’s story and are very entertaining, albeit clichéd.
Live by Night also borrows from classical Hollywood by ensuring the cinematography and powerful score are utilised almost perfectly. Affleck directs these elements to recall the golden age of Hollywood; less obtuse CGI is employed. Instead the film focuses on practical sets that create a sense of unrealism than those sets projected in the 1940’s and 50’s.
The action scenes are also stunningly directed and shot, the typical death montages are quick and brutally effective, and one thrilling car chase sequence recalls his previously directorial effort The Town. The excellent cinematography from Tarantino favourite Robert Richardson (Django Unchained, Shutter Island) makes for a visual treat; despite the title, this is actually shot as a daylit noir, with plenty of crafty sequences.
Ultimately Live by Night is an entertaining gangster flick that is visually incredible and expertly directed. The fates of most characters, with the exception of the main one, will remain with you long after the credits. It is exciting that Affleck has tried to revive this period of Hollywood, but a shame that the driving force is such a let-down. As neither anti-hero nor good guy, it is impossible to connect with the clumsily painted protagonist.