In recent years, Ben Affleck has proven himself as a very solid director. His first three films Gone Baby Gone, The Town and Argo are terrifically tense and tightly wound thrillers with a very strong atmosphere and sense of place. Thus, when news broke that the current Batman was returning to filmmaking, adapting another novel by Dennis Lehane (the writer behind Gone Baby Gone) expectations were very high. Live by Night stars its’ director as Joe Coughlin, a 1920’s Boston gangster and war veteran, who after a violent feud with Irish kingpin Albert White (Philip Glenister), sides with his enemy’s adversaries – the Italian mob – and emigrates to Tampa in Florida to pedal rum during prohibition.
On the positive front, Live by Night looks very appealing. The period detail and décor pops off the screen, while also managing to look quite authentic. The cars, the clothes, the under-developed town of Tampa – all of it exemplifies Affleck’s skill as a filmmaker to create realistic but vibrant environments on-screen. Meanwhile, the director assembles a stellar supporting cast, all of whom blend seamlessly into their surroundings. Elle Fanning is perfectly cast as a fallen virginial presence corrupted by sin, as is Chris Cooper as her father, an old and seemingly wise sheriff and Brendan Gleeson as Joe’s tough Irish immigrant and police chief father.
However, the transition from making movies featuring quite tight narratives – a pair of P.I.s looking for a missing child, a group of bank-robbers planning their last heist, a C.I.A. agent journeying into Iran to rescue a group of Americans – to crafting a gangster epic that spans two decades feels like a bumpy one for Affleck. It could be the fact that this is the first script he wrote entirely on his own or maybe it’s more to do with the editing – the fact that Scott Eastwood is credited as playing Joe’s brother despite never appearing onscreen hints there is a longer cut of Live by Night out there – but the movie never establishes a constant rhythm.
Live by Night has a similar structure to movies like Goodfellas or Boogie Nights in the sense that it’s more a collection of events that occur than a straightforward story. Yet, Affleck can’t muster the energy of filmmakers like Scorsese or P.T.A or David O. Russell to keep his film consistently engaging. There are moments of Goodfellas cool and a handful of solid and handsomely mounted action scenes. Yet, one can’t escape the unmistakable feeling of tonal whiplash between the juxtaposition of pulpy and serious moments, as well as its multiple running plot-threads that are intermittently interesting but never quite gel e.g. a feud with the KKK, the conflict between Joe’s profession and his father’s, Joe’s obsession with a gangster’s moll (Sienna Miller) and his relationship with Fanning and Cooper’s characters. It’s strange but Live by Night feels simultaneously too long – because of how much ground it covers – and too short – because of how little it analyses said ground.
The movie is far from a failure. It’s cast – aside from Affleck who looks a little too modern and soft for the period setting (maybe his brother Casey could have brought the hard edge the character needed) – is enjoyable to watch and what unfolds on-screen certainly isn’t boring. However, if the film succeeds, it does so on the level of a pulpy gangster flick like Gangster Squad. Those looking for something a little more significant should look elsewhere.
Live By Night is in cinemas now. Check out the trailer below.
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