Spoiler alert: this article contains some spoilers for Live By Night.
Ben Affleck’s latest gangster noir film, while a homage to the era of Bogart and Cagney, doesn’t pack quite the punch as the oldies. It’s all ambition with no vision. With Affleck as the director, screenwriter, producer and star, Live By Night sees him returning to the work of Dennis Lehane, the author of his 2007 directive debut film Gone Baby Gone. Despite collaborating with Lehane, Live By Night is a tedious underworld drama, lavish with period details from the 20s and 30s. With a top notch crew, cinematographer Robert Richardson, set decorator Nancy Haigh, and costume designer Jacqueline West, this film was guaranteed to be beautiful. It is visually pleasing and breathtaking, yet it fell somewhat flat.
The premise of the film follows the steps of Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) and his turbulent journey through life after World War I, becoming an outlaw then hardened gangster. Starting off in the streets of Boston with small robberies, Joe find himself robbing from the mob which commences his dive into a life of organised crime. Sound good, right?
The film’s structure felt like two movies packed into one, or even multiple episodes to an HBO miniseries. The first chapter of the film is set in Boston where Joe is with White’s crew, eliminating threats and organising heists. The pace picks up immediately, gun shots, explosions, even a high speed car chase which is somewhat dampened by the vintage cars. There is an eloquence to the destruction of property and murder, like making someone falling off a building look like an artistic move. Then just like that it slows down to a sluggish stage before picking up again the second chapter of the film which takes Joe to Tampa, now in league with Italian Mafia boss Maso Pescatore. He’s placed in charge of the rum-smuggling operation, and his loyalty is to Pescatore first and foremost. What else would a mafia boss ask of you?
Coughlin leads one too many lives throughout the film, jumping place to place with a new role and new morals. The film raises issues that simply add to the plot such as racism, the KKK, abolition of gambling in a God-fearing period, and the morality of meaningless death. In this life, you don’t get to see old age. Affleck resorts to montages and voice-overs to assist us with all the plot points, but they become lost quite quickly. And with only 129 minutes of screen time, What Live By Night lacks in structure is compensated by the stunning visual style and impressive cast members. The pieces of the film are there, but they’re floating about and unable to be connected – there just isn’t enough substance.
Despite its jagged plot, the supporting cast provided the film with the edge it needed. With Affleck playing a lackluster protagonist, Sienna
Miller plays the fiery role of Emma Gould, the Irish mistress of mob leader Albert White (Robert Glenister) and Joe’s first love interest. Head to head with White is Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), an Italian mafia lord. Brendan Gleeson as Joe’s father, Thomas, played an interesting character – a police officer who will protect his son despite his dabbling in organised crime. During Coughlin’s time in Tampa, he encounters Irving Figgis (Chris Cooper), the local chief of police who “rubs elbow with corrupt men”, and his daughter Loretta Figgis (Elle Fanning) aspiring actress turned devout Christian whose sermons will give you chills. We also cannot forget Zoe Saldana as Graciella Corrales, who plays Joe’s second love interest but also a rock for his morals. What was disappointing about her role was it was reduced from a player in the rum trade to Joe’s fretting eye candy.
The crippling aspect of the film was the protagonist himself. Coughlin is painted as a lost soul who is torn between being a cold-hearted gangster and a good man. He wasn’t such a convincing gangster because of the sympathetic light shone on him. It is once said in the film that powerful men need not be cruel, which seems to be something Joe holds on to as his life spirals out of control, engulfed by the demands of the mafia. He had the potential to be the anti-hero, yet his good nature is pinpointed in moments such as his plot against the KKK and having an abhorrence for racism. Speaking of the KKK, it could have been fleshed out so much more – imagine it! The mafia engaged in a war with the white supremacists. It would have been insane.
Overall, Live By Night is beautiful, sleek, yet rather bland. It was too much plot without enough substance, led by a protagonist who couldn’t decide who he was.