With three critically acclaimed films under his belt, we’ve become accustomed to treating each new Ben Affleck directorial effort as a main event in the world of cinema. After the immense success of Argo, it seemed like a given that this next film was going to be something special. Alas, Live by Night doesn’t quite reach the heights of any of his prior directorial efforts. This Prohibition-era gangster noir ultimately comes undone due to a seemingly intended epic scope that chooses quantity of storylines over quality.
The film follows petty thief Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck), who also happens to be the son of Boston police captain Thomas Coughlin (a consistently solid Brendan Gleeson) and involved in a steamy love affair with Emma Gould (an unrecognizable Sienna Miller). She’s Albert White’s (Robert Glenister) girlfriend, the current leader of the Irish mob. So yeah, that’s a problem.
Joe’s “playing with fire” lifestyle comes crashing to an end after his botched robbery attempt ends with dead cops and Albert discovers he’s been screwing his girl and planning to run away with her. He’s arrested before Albert can kill him but while in the hospital, is informed that Emma was not so lucky. Joe’s locked up for only three years (the perks of being the captain’s son) and upon release vows revenge against Albert White. He offers his services to his rival Maso Pescatori (Remo Girone), leader of the Italian mob. So begins the rise from petty thief to crime lord, bootlegging kingpin as the story swings from Boston to Ybor City in Tampa, Florida.
Phew! You’d think the twist and turns would slow down after that but no, not at all. Joe’s time in Florida is even more chock full of subplots and side characters. The scattershot story could be attributed to being overly faithful to the Dennis Lehane novel of which this film is based on, but Affleck’s script could definitely have dropped a few plot threads in lieu of a more focused narrative.
The most successful of the subplots would be one that involves Loretta Figgis (Elle Fanning), a young aspiring actress turned preacher and her father Irving Figgis (Chris Cooper), the Tampa chief of police. You can see that a major theme Live by Night plays with is that of people in power and their children and how their chosen life paths converge. It ends up being the most fascinating study in the plot but is drowned out by the other countless occupations.
Here with his familiar Bostonian twang, Ben Affleck’s leading turn doesn’t veer too far off of what we’ve seen from him before. It’s actually many of the supporting cast who stand out in the film, including the aforementioned Chris Cooper, Elle Fanning and Matthew Maher, who’s fantastically creepy and psychotic as a despicable member of the Ku Klux Klan. Most impressive though is Chris Messina. His performance as Joe’s right hand man Dion Bartolo kicks so much ass. Walking with an on point swagger and Cuban cigar in tow, he brings vivacious life to each scene he’s in, pulling off both comedic and action beats with ease. I can’t explain how damn exhilarating it is to watch him shove a goon over a banister and Tommy gun barrage him as he falls to the bottom floor.
It also needs to be said that the production design in in Live by Night is incredible. Whether it’s 1920’s Boston or 1930’s Ybor City, each world is fully realized with impeccable attention to detail. Did I mention that the violence pops? The fateful car chase that labels Joe a cop killer in addition to the many shootouts that populate the film provide some electrifying and truly gratifying action beats. Live by Night is bloody and ultra-violent at times, never shying away from the ugly nature of this crime infested world. It’s full of an endless array of slimy characters who come and go from Joe’s life – it’s just a shame that there are too many and barely any of them get the attention they deserve.
Ben Affleck’s Live by Night had the potential to be a great neo-noir what with its play on double crossing, fatalism and the inclusion of strong, alluring and dangerous female characters. However, it ends up ruining its chances by telegraphing some major twists and for the most part, relegating the female characters to the peripheries rather than featuring them as major players. There’s definitely some stuff to like in here, and it’s not a total loss, but it’ll no doubt go down as a failure and rightly so. Ben Affleck is better than this.
Overstuffed and disappointing, Live By Night wastes a strong supporting cast. It's not a total loss, but it doesn’t hold up against the rest of Affleck’s filmography.