Film Review – Live By Night
Live By Night
Live by Night marks Ben Affleck’s fourth outing as a director of a feature film. It is also his fourth time as a feature film screenwriter. The film is based on the bestseller by Dennis Lehane who was also the author of Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone. Affleck has quite a good reputation as both a screenwriter and director, not always as an actor, but red flags appeared for this film when it has a release date of mid-January and has thus far received no major film awards’ nominations.
Live by Night follows the tumultuous life of Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck), a robber turned reluctant gangster. He is a rebel, growing out of a distaste for what he saw during World War I. He takes up with the mob life after plotting revenge on the Irish gangster, Albert White (Robert Glenister), who he believes killed his lady love, Emma Gould (Sienna Miller). It should be mentioned that Emma is the mistress of White. Joe takes up with the Italian mob run by Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) and is tasked with running the Tampa outfit smuggling rum during Prohibition. With his friend, Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina) in tow, Joe makes a name for himself in Tampa, but not without some problems and a new love, Graciela (Zoe Saldana).
The first third of the film is entirely to set up Joe’s background and the reason for a turn of events for the climax. He is a bad boy that has turned against, or rather despite his upbringing, his police commissioner father, Thomas (Brendan Gleeson). Along with his turn in luck and his inside man turning on him, it is the catalyst of rest of the film. However, it is a long section of the film that could have been simplified and shortened, and when and if you see the film, you realize how trivial some of the events shown are to it.
The level of graphic violence is unexpected, not that it bothers most people, but usually it is disguised in some way. In the first few minutes of the film, you will see someone thrown off the building and see them land, and a guy shot point blank, among others. In the audience I was in, there were definite shocked reactions to it, but alas this is a gangster film and apparently Affleck has stepped up his bloody violence game for the genre.
The main issue with this film is the storyline, some odd character choices, and the presentation of the story. This is obviously from a complex, multiple character book, and Affleck chose to keep some of the story that needed to go or be pared down. The quizzical characters of Chief Figgis (Chris Cooper) and his daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning) would have been enough for me to think this does not need to be made into a film adaptation. There is too much, and perhaps if this had been turned into a miniseries, the development and progression of the story and characters may have done the source material better.
Live by Night is a mess, both in story and characters. It is not a total lost cause as there are good parts to the film, especially Dion and the film’s attempt to ugly-fie Chris Messina (not possible). I never thought I would see a film that rivaled the unending endings of The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, but here is Live by Night. The problem is not Affleck’s portrayal of Joe (although seeing him in that gangster suit gave me pause), but the choices made by him both as a director and screenwriter. Despite Affleck’s pedigree, the film fails, and that is unexpected.