Live By Night Is An Engaging If Overstuffed Trip to the Roaring 20s

January 16, 2017

With his first three releases, Ben Affleck has cemented himself as a far more skilled director than actor, the third of those films, Argo, taking home three Oscars, including Best Picture. His latest effort, the gangster epic Live By Night, sees him reuniting with author Dennis Lehane (Gone Baby Gone) to solid, if disappointingly uneven results.

The film follows Joe Coughlin (Affleck), a World War I vet who’s found himself on the wrong side of the law since returning home. The son of a Boston cop (Brendan Gleeson), Joe seems bent on rebelling against authority (all too bluntly highlighted through Affleck’s monotone narration), starting an affair with the girl (Sienna Miller) of a local Irish mob head, Albert White (Robert Glenister), that quickly goes awry.

After serving a short prison term, Joe lands in the employ of White’s rival, Italian gangster Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). Sent to Florida to run Maso’s rum business as well as to eliminate White, Coughlin soon finds himself entangled in the web of violence that seems to grip the region. From Cuban expatriates to the KKK and other religious zealots, it might be too much to handle for both Joe and Affleck, the narrative proving far too unwieldy for a two-hour film.

Live By Night’s Boston-set first act is certainly its simplest, but also its least interesting, packed with characters who speak solely in platitudes and moving much too quickly for any of its characters to leave much of an impression. Luckily, the film does manage to kick into gear by the time Joe sets off for Tampa, the dialogue noticeably improving the second he steps off the train.

That’s largely thanks to the bevy of character actors Affleck surrounds himself with. From criminally underused performers like Gleeson and Chris Messina (stealing the show as Joe’s brash sidekick) to the Oscar-winning likes of Chris Cooper, delivering a steely yet tortured performance as an increasingly conflicted sheriff, the film’s supporting cast is among the best of 2016. Unfortunately, many of them are resorted to footnotes in the overstuffed plot, Glenister’s devilish White and Zoe Saldana’s Graciela, Joe’s love interest for the majority of the running time, in particular.

The film’s cast does have two weak links, however: Miller and Affleck. Miller is particularly awful, saddled with a grating accent and a character whose distinct unlikability crashes any understanding of Joe’s adoration for her. While certainly not as unbearable as Miller, Affleck’s failure is far more devastating, jumping wildly between charismatic and overly stoic and never quite finding the pathos in his withdrawn lead.

Live By Night succeeds most as a period piece, chock full of lavish sets and gorgeous costumes that perfectly recreate the era across both locations. The film’s award-worthy production is made easy to appreciate by Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson (JFK, Django Unchained, etc.), who captures both the film’s occasional thrilling bits and its quietest moments (a leisurely excursion on the ocean is especially entrancing) with expert precision. Affleck also continues to prove his talent as a director of action, a car chase in Boston and a late game shootout set in a hotel ranking as some of the year’s best sequences.


The Verdict

Although certainly the worst of his four directorial efforts, Ben Affleck’s Live By Night is a beautiful and entertaining gangster film that manages to largely succeed in spite of its unfocused, cluttered narrative and uninteresting lead.

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