Starring: Ben Affleck, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana
Director: Ben Affleck
Running Time: 129 mins
Synopsis: Returning to his hometown of Boston after fighting in WW1, Joe Coughlin (Affleck) finds himself drawn into a world of bank heists and violent crime. After crossing the wrong gangster by screwing his floozy (Miller) Joe winds up in prison. A few years later he is released and heads to Florida, backed by the Italian mob, to tackle the fledgling rum business, and to personally seek revenge for events past.
Ben Affleck has long had his past filmic troubles held over his head. Even as he steadily built a directorial career of proper class there was a repeated need to mention Daredevil, Gigli or god forbid J-Lo with every review. It wasn’t until his surprise Best Picture win for Argo, despite being neglected for a Best Director nomination, that it felt like the time was finally right to put his past to bed. It is a sign of how times have changed that in last years critically mauled BvS he was the only one to get out of it all unscathed, the Affleck of Daredevil would scarcely believe it! Unfortunately his latest turn behind the camera, as well as scripting, an adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s prohibition set crime tale, is a case of one small step forward, two giant leaps back.
Live by Night opens awkwardly, introducing its central character Joe Coughlin (Affleck making a decent stab at a thin character he wrote for himself) as he returns from fighting in WW1 and feeling drawn into a world of crime. This is where the issues in Affleck’s script immediately come to the fore. In its eagerness to get Joe straight into a life of crime we forgo any real motivation for this choice. Although upon introducing Sienna Miller’s gangster’s moll we see that primarily it is driven by infatuation for her and her life of easy money. On the downside for Joe, Miller’s Emma is the squeeze of bigwig gangster Albert White (a sneering Robert Glenister, yes him from Hustle) who upon learning of their affair decides to teach Joe a lesson. One involving violent beatings and eventually death. Before this can be achieved though Joe is arrested by his cop father. Played by Brendan Gleeson in familiar formidable mode, he is a welcome but brief presence.
Arrested due to an earlier bank heist that resulted in the deaths of three cops, Affleck constructs a muscular almost Bourne style car chase despite the speed limitations of the 20s motor cars. So far, so generic. It is hard to know what this film is trying to say, or in fact who to root for. Coughlin is undoubtedly a bad man, but the script attempts to make us champion him despite the callous nature of his dealings. Sure previous gangster films have made proper scumbags into very lovable rogues usually due to effective actorly charisma, but barring a few witty one liners Joe is very much a blank slate. Events are certainly not helped by a wilfully poor performance from Sienna Miller, all caricature with a terrible Irish accent and odd make-up accentuating her truly strange performance. Thankfully she isn’t present for the films second and stronger half.
Said second half is refreshingly different, as it sets events in the sunny racially diverse Florida state. Its social hotbed of woozy jazz music, black culture, and Ku Klux Klan threat giving it a distinctive vibe to the usual gangster scenarios. Affleck doesn’t help matters by trying to cram far too much into this segment. It manages to be a revenge tale (he seeks retribution against Arnold), love story (thanks to Zoe Saldana’s sultry but thankless role as Garciella), political story (Coughlin seeks to manipulate local governors in order to build a casino), and of course gangster tale. A dovetail into the trials of a local girl (a luminous Elle Fanning) who turns religious extremist causing trouble for Joe adds further weight to an already rammed story. It offers some interesting moral colour to proceedings, but doesn’t quite blend into the main story as well as it should do, especially when the outcome of it involving Fanning’s cop father played by Chris Cooper reeks of plot contrivance. Although it must be said that Cooper is one of the strongest performers here, his grief and confusion as Coughlin reveals a shocking truth surrounding his daughter offers up the films only real emotional moment.
At 129 mins it is already a long film but all these storylines manage to make it feel even longer. It is never boring, and Affleck laces some killer lines throughout (although more from Lehane’s noir writing than his own) but it does drag. Structurally Affleck has lost the tight focus and taut control of his previous films. A sharper more focused edit would have done wonders at masking the cliches, if not wholly removing them.
One area in which Affleck has improved in is his shot composition. Primarily driven by Hateful Eight DoP Robert Richardson, the film is filled with artfully composed shots, lush colours (one scene as a boat chugs through the Everglades as a pink sun sets is breathtaking) and classical framing. It is a sign of a confident mature director. The production design is also impeccable, with large scale sets and wonderful costuming giving an air of class to it all. It’s just a shame that Affleck didn’t spend more time working out the story issues, and hone his characters into more believable interesting individuals. Live by Night has no way sent him back down the road of Gigli or Bennifer, but it is a noticeable stumbling block in his escalation up the Hollywood strata.
Verdict: Ben Affleck’s first directorial folly, a generic overly plotted and at times hamfistedly written gangster tale. A few flashes of wit and handsome shots give it some life but if you want a seaside set Prohibition drama stick with Boardwalk Empire.