Live by Night (United States, 2017)January 11, 2017
The connection between actor/director/writer Ben Affleck and author Dennis Lehane goes back nearly a decade. In 2007, Affleck made his directorial debut by adapting Lehane’s Gone Baby Gone for the screen. It was a high-water mark in both of their careers. Their reunion, although likely entertaining for those who enjoy gangster films, lacks the same snap-crackle-pop. It’s a less powerful endeavor and the ending is problematic. It never ascends to the high orbit of Gone Baby Gone (or Affleck’s Argo or the Clint Eastwood/Lehane collaboration, Mystic River).
Live by Night has its opening act in Boston (a city for which both Affleck and Lehane have an affinity) during the intra-war years (the late 1920s, to be precise). Joe Coughlin (Affleck), a WW1 veteran, has turned into a two-bit criminal, robbing people and places at gunpoint while riling up Irish mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister) and Italian mafia kingpin Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). Joe is protected by his police captain father, Thomas (Brendan Gleeson), who has no illusions about what his son is. However, when Joe’s affair with White’s girlfriend, Emma (Sienna Miller), is discovered, Joe escapes death only to serve a prison term. After emerging from behind bars, he offers his services to Pescatore, who ships him to Florida to establish a foothold in Tampa. As a bonus, he gets to cut into White’s business. He brings his old gangster buddy, Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina), with him.
In Ybor City, Florida, Joe carves out his own empire, recruiting loyalists and running rum. He pursues gambling (which he is sure will become “the next big thing”) but refuses to distribute drugs. He falls in love with Cuban Graciella Corrales (Zoe Saldana) but his affair with a dark-skinned woman earns him the ire of the KKK. Meanwhile, in order to ensure the cooperation of strait laced police chief Irving Figgis (Chris Cooper), he uses compromising photographs of Irving’s daughter, Loretta (Elle Fanning), for blackmail. Back in Boston, although Pescatore appreciates the constant influx of cash, he becomes concerned that Joe is too soft and he’s leaving too much on the table so he sends his son (Max Casella) to Florida as an overseer. That’s when the cracks in the foundation of the Coughlin/Pescatore partnership begin to widen.
Affleck’s love of The Godfather is evident throughout Live by Night, to the extent that it’s almost impossible to discuss the latter without mentioning the former. Many of the familiar gangster tropes are present in Lehane’s novel but Affleck amplifies them with visual echoes of Coppola’s classic. Thematically, the movies are linked - both are about men with “good” souls who cannot escape the corruption of the business into which they have been drawn. Surface similarities, however, don’t place the films on the same level. Morally, narratively, and in terms of character depth, Live by Night is a less compelling production and Affleck’s performance isn’t nearly as nuanced as Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone.
The film’s climax is tautly executed; the way everything plays out is a whirl of brutal, violent beauty. Although it’s possible to predict the “big picture” resolution, some of the details are surprising and Affleck is able to maintain a constant level of suspense from the moment it begins until it’s over. After the final shot has been fired, however, the movie slides into a morass of narrative quicksand. The story continues with a tonal imbalance that simultaneously feels rushed and anticlimactic. The last images are worthy ones but the movie struggles through about ten minutes of footage to get there. (To be fair, this problem has its roots in the book but Affleck is not able to solve the riddle in the adaptation.)
As an actor, Affleck is a strong, reassuring presence; his performance is an anchor holding things in place and allowing for a flotilla of strong supporting portrayals. His work in front of the camera isn’t unlike Kevin Costner’s contributions to films like The Untouchables and Dances with Wolves. Zoe Saldana, Sienna Miller, and Chris Messina are strong but the supporting standouts are Elle Fanning as the doubt-plagued Loretta, Chris Cooper as her tortured father, and Brendan Gleeson as the magnetic and pragmatic Thomas Coughlin.
In a year when films have reveled in depictions of past eras of America, Affleck’s recreation of Boston during the Roaring ‘20s and Depression-era Florida is a work of cinematic wizardry. He transports us 90 years back in time and such a successful reanimation of the past is half the battle in capturing the audience. As for the other half… viewers predisposed to like gangster movies with their violence, betrayal, and moral ambiguities will find Live by Night to offer a solid night’s entertainment. It’s not the best of its kind but it’s better than most and aims to say something rather than merely satisfy by copious bloodletting.
Live by Night (United States, 2017)
Cast: Ben Affleck, Chris Messina, Zoe Saldana, Elle Fanning, Chris Cooper, Brendan Gleeson, Sienna Miller, Robert Glenister, Remo Girone
Screenplay: Ben Affleck, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane
Cinematography: Robert Richardson
Music: Harry Gregson-Williams
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers