Review: Live By Night
PLOT: A war-vet (Ben Affleck) rises through the ranks to becomes a notorious bootlegger and gangster during prohibition.
REVIEW: Part of me wishes Ben Affleck had started off LIVE BY NIGHT with the old Warner Bros. logo from the thirties and forties. It would have been highly appropriate given how much of a throwback this feels to the old-time gangster melodramas the studio put out in the thirties, including the all-time classics that kick-started the careers of legends like James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson.
Cagney especially seems to be an influence here, with Affleck’s good-bad guy not a far cry from the noble gangsters the icon played in two of my WB’s faves, ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES and THE ROARING TWENTIES. It fits in nicely with his body-of-work as a director, having the atmosphere of GONE BABY, GONE, the firepower of THE TOWN, and the scale/confidence of ARGO. It all adds up to a pretty nifty package, even if the final film, which comes in at over two hours, is still missing a little something that, had it been tacked-on, might have made LIVE BY NIGHT more of the epic it’s trying to be rather than a very solid adult thriller.
The first part of the film is where it feels compromised, as if Affleck, wanting to tighten it up, went in an excised some material. As such, the first half hour, tracing the hero, Joe Coughlin’s (Affleck) days as a low level gangster with a cop dad (Brendan Gleeson) and a lover (Sienna Miller) that just happens to be the mistress of a psycho gangster (Robert Glenister), is uneven. Here, it kind of jumps all over the place, giving the family aspect short shift (a brother is often referred to but never seen), which starts the movie off on an awkward foot.
Luckily, once the second act kicks in, Affleck finds his footing. It’s here that the main focus of the film starts, with Coughlin rising up as a boss in Tampa, forging an alliance with the mixed-race crew his Mafia bosses ignore, leading to problems with his bosses and the local KKK chapter. Affleck, adapting Dennis Lehane’s novel himself, is able to work in a lot about how the disenfranchised are oppressed by those that rely on them, something that’s still pretty relevant, making this one of the more socially aware gangster tales I’ve seen in a while.
Through it all, Affleck never skimps on action, staging plenty of large-scale gun fights, bolstered by the hard-R rating, Harry Gregson-Williams's score and Robert Richardson’s gorgeous cinematography. The cast is top-shelf, with Zoe Saldana as Affleck’s eventual love interest, Chris Messina as his quick-tempered right-hand man, and Chris Cooper as a local cop blackmailed into dealing with the bootleggers.
Of them all, the most impressive performance comes from Elle Fanning, as Cooper’s daughter, who becomes a junkie and eventually a big-time tent preacher. It’s another very impressive turn for her, and it also allows Affleck to make his own character more gray-shaded than you’d imagine. Altogether, it ads up to a very entertaining gangster picture. As it stands, LIVE BY NIGHT is probably my least favorite of Affleck’s films as a director (GONE BABY, GONE and ARGO are 10’s for me, THE TOWN is a strong 9), but that’s only because it feels like something’s missing. If this one gets a director’s cut, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if people’s estimation of it grows considerably. Until then, it’s still a damn solid crime flick.
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