Review: Live by Night
Ben Affleck’s latest film Live by Night is like America, and much like America, the film is a melting pot. But while the American experiment is (mostly) a success, the film is (mostly) a failure. Written and directed by Affleck and based on the novel by Gone, Baby, Gone author Dennis Lehane, the Prohibition-era gangster film has the makings of another worthy effort in Affleck’s directorial career, but it ultimately falls short of any of his previous work.
Affleck stars as Joe Coughlin, a thief who gets himself caught up in the gangster world after falling in love with a crime boss’ mistress (Sienna Miller). Threaded together by over expository narration, Coughlin’s actions don’t feel narratively compelling at the outset, which lands squarely at the foot of Affleck himself. His portrayal of Coughlin is not an ever-simmering kettle of energy, as what was clearly intended, but rather a limp, stone-faced depiction of your typical gangster antihero. Agency is thrown out the window, as Coughlin falls into each new situation. The first half is rather dull, right until our lead finds himself working for an Italian crime boss, when he's assigned to run a rum smuggling ring in Florida.
The film picks up momentum when the Ku Klux Klan try to nose into Coughlin’s business in Florida. There’s some pleasure to be had with the blasting away of these “inbred hicks,” as Coughlin calls them. Here is where the film starts to show its potential. It feels like Affleck was trying to make Live by Night a timely take on America’s ever-present racial divide. Coughlin falls in love with a Cuban businesswoman, Graciella (Zoe Saldana), and befriends the refugee population in his stronghold of Ybor City in Tampa, Florida. The Klan doesn’t like any of this, which leads Coughlin’s crew to bust some white supremacists’ heads. We are only left to wonder what a feature-length tale of gangsters destroying the Klan would look like, instead we’re offered a total of ten minutes of a thrilling plotline.
Affleck moves from the righteous killing of the Klan to religious conservatism. With the building of a casino in Florida, the one thing that stands in Coughlin’s way is a preacher, Loretta (Elle Fanning), who condemns the godlessness of the gangsters. There are a few poignant conversations involving human rights and faith, with Fanning’s character pondering God's existence and whether Heaven is right here on Earth. The religious aspect of the film never really gets expanded on; we see a Tampa Sheriff (Chris Cooper) clinging on to his Christian beliefs, at one point physically abusing his daughter, Loretta, for become a heroin addict. It’s an odd thread that doesn’t fully congeal into the narrative because of the cliché nature of the film.
There are familiar plotlines throughout. Live by Night doesn’t bother to reinvent the wheel, and neither does it try to pull off these elements with much-needed fervor. Twists and turns offer no surprise, and those flashes of brilliance are drowned out by the well-tread ground of gangster films’ past. There are many could-haves in Live by Night. Possibly another pass at the script could’ve have focused on the many smarter elements the film attempts to tackle. An impassioned speech by Coughlin about immigrants rightfully taking what’s owed to them feels out of place right next to scenes of meaningless character deaths. Coughlin, after taking down an enemy, says “I had some final words for him. Oh well.” Which might’ve been a more comical line if it didn’t shine a blistering light on the thrown-togetherness of the script.
There’s not a single performance that really stands out in the film. Chris Cooper might be the one performer with the most to do who manages to carry the highs and lows of what his character suffers through. The rest of the cast has to struggle through accents and thankless roles. Zoe Saldana and Sienna Miller, Affleck’s two love interests in the film, battle through shaky accents while in their unrewarding roles.
Going through the cast and crew, the one name that stands out as putting in remarkable work in Live by Night is cinematographer Robert Richardson. Using Arri Alexa digital cameras, with vintage film lenses, Richardson shoots the film with the golden hues one would associate with the roaring 1920s and 30s. There are gorgeous shots of Florida beaches and marshes that push the boundaries of digital filmmaking. Awe-inspiring scenes near the end attempts to lift the film up from its unfulfilling, pulpy grounds. It almost works. Almost.
Affleck may have needed more time with the script, or just someone else to help him co-write this gangster tale novel adaptation. There are kernels of great themes and ideas within Live by Night, but it never really comes together to create a meaningful Prohibition-era crime drama. Religion, the importance of immigrants and the American dream; these topics are touched on but are never really fleshed out to make Live by Night a worthwhile effort. It's a shame that Affleck has delivered his first misfire in a promising and award-winning directorial career.