As a director Ben Affleck so far has a perfect strike rate with his three previous efforts behind the camera. First up was the tough Boston noir Gone Baby Gone, which was adapted from the novel written by Dennis Lehane (Mystic River), and starred younger brother Casey. Next up was The Town, a tough crime drama about a gang of crooks out to rob Fenway Park. And his third film was Argo, a true story set against the backdrop of an audacious mission to rescue hostages from Iran, and which won an Oscar for Best Picture. And now Affleck steps into the director’s chair for the fourth time, with the sprawling crime drama, Live By Night, which has also been adapted from a novel written by Dennis Lehane. But this film is a major disappointment, and easily the lesser of his four films.
Affleck himself stars as Joe Coughlin, a WWI war hero and the son of a tough and respected Boston police officer (Brendan Gleeson). But a little traumatised and disillusioned by his war experiences, Coughlin doesn’t want to follow the normal rules, so he engages in robbing banks and backroom poker games, aided by the treacherous gangster’s moll Emma Gould (Sienna Miller). But soon Coughlin finds himself caught up in a turf war between a powerful Irish crime boss and an Italian crime lord. Eventually he ends up working for the Italian mob, and is sent to Florida to oversee their bootlegging operations in Tampa. He forms an uneasy alliance with a Cuban gang, and has to deal with the vicious Ku Klux Klan, which tries to muscle in on his operations.
Joe also works with puritanical local police chief Irving Figgis (Chris Cooper), who believes himself incorruptible but faces a crisis of conscience when his daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning), an aspiring actress and recovering drug addict, has turned to religion and her preaching turns the community against Joe’s ambitious plans to open a local casino.
Live by Night is a sprawling crime drama that spans the 1920s and early 1930s, the era of Prohibition and the Depression, as it charts Coughlin’s rise to power, and deals with themes of ambition, loyalty, revenge and power. The film was a passion project for Affleck, who intended it to be an homage to the crime movies that he loved, but somehow his ambition is a little limited. Replete with many of the familiar tropes of the gangster genre, Live by Night comes across as an attempt at producing a grand crime drama in the style of Scorsese or Coppola, but it lacks their sense of visual flair and understanding of character and powerful narrative.
Adapted by Affleck, the film is something of a mess structurally with lots of subplots running throughout the central narrative and a rich tapestry of characters, some of whom are underdeveloped. However, the film could have done with more time spent on exploring these various elements and maybe the material would have been better served by turning it into a television mini-series. Affleck does prove himself a good director of action sequences, particularly with a great car chase early on, and there is a bit of a nasty streak to some of the violence here. Affleck’s direction lacks a sense of urgency and there is not the same tension that he brought to his previous efforts behind the camera. And there is a feeling that we have seen most of these ideas in far superior films. The ending itself is a bit too downbeat and bleak.
Affleck’s attention to period detail though is meticulous and the film authentically recreates the era of speakeasies through costumes, the cars, and settings. This is a stylish looking production, and cinematographer Robert Richardson captures the noir-like mood of the material with his sepia tones.
Despite his square jaw and chiseled features, Affleck’s detached performance as the morally compromised Joe is ironically one of the film’s weaker elements, especially his ponderous voice-over narration that fills the gaps between key set pieces. Coughlin has a strong moral sense of justice and right and wrong, and he is driven by a need to right those wrongs committed against him by powerful people. His performance seems to meld elements of tough guy gangsters of yesteryear without actually creating an original or compelling character.
However Affleck has surrounded himself with a great supporting cast, that includes Gleeson and Cooper, who are both fine and brings a touch of gravitas to their performances. Fanning is good in a complex role, and Matthew Maher is suitably slimy as R D Pruitt, the local head of the KKK. Avatar’s Zoe Saldana plays Graciela, Joe’s sultry Cuban mistress, and Chris Messina plays his trusted lieutenant Dion Bartolo. Robert Glenister brings a menacing touch to his role as Irish crime boss Albert White. But many in the cast are wasted.
Ultimately the ambitious Live by Night is plodding gangster film and a major disappointment from a director who has in the past delivered the goods. Especially when compared to superior films of this genre like the Coens’ Miller’s Crossing, or the epic Once Upon a Time in America. It seems that here Affleck has bitten off more than he chew.
Director: Ben Affleck
Cast: Ben Affleck, Brendan Gleeson, Elle Fanning, Zoe Saldana, Sienna Miller
Release Date: 26 January 2017
Rating: MA 15+
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television