By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)

 

Visually opulent but dramatically unsatisfying, Live by Night sees Ben Affleck the film-maker stumble for the first time, bringing to an end an impressive directorial run that saw him craft the Academy Award nominated Gone Baby Gone and The Town, along with the Oscar-winning Argo.

Deliberately aping the gangster films produced by RKO and Warner Brothers during the 1940’s, the story opens in Boston, with obligatory narration delivered by its main character, Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck), who is in hospital recovering from a severe beating. Who has inflicted this brutal assault will soon be revealed, as flashbacks detail Joe’s unsavoury lifestyle. A thief and outlaw, Joe leads two others, including longtime friend Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina), through a series of robberies that remain small scale, keeping his crew under the radar of two major criminal gangs.

One is Irish, ruled with an iron fist by Albert White (Robert Glenister), while the other is Italian, headed by Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). The year is 1926, so Prohibition is in full swing, and these bitter rivals are in the middle of a bloody turf war, each one desperately wanting to take full control of the profitable rum trade.

Coughlin is having an affair with White’s moll Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), and feels that this relationship is more than physical. But after a bank robbery goes disastrously wrong, it sets off a chain of events that will find the battered Coughlin joining the Pescatore gang and being sent to Florida, where he gradually builds a hugely successful empire that feeds on the public’s thirst for illegal liquor. Working alongside the African-American, Cuban, and Latino communities, Coughlin falls afoul of the Klu Klux Klan, in particular the ruthless, violently unstable R.D. Pruitt (Matthew Maher), who doesn’t hesitate in using a gun to make his point. Complicating matters is the fact that Pruitt is the brother-in-law of Chief Figgis (Chris Cooper), a powerful police figure whom Coughlin has forged a specific agreement with. Figgis’ innocent daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning) will play a large part in changing their turbulent relationship.

As you can see, there is a lot going on in Live by Night. Underneath its traditional plotting is a plethora of subtext and social commentary, from Coughlin’s experiences during WWI and his inability to fit back into society afterwards, to the provocative subjects of segregation, immigration, and racially-motivated repression, a toxic viewpoint that has infested various places of power that are supposed to be helping bring people together. The material couldn’t be more relevant and topical, and the potential to craft a stylish gangster pic with substance is undeniable.

However, in adapting Dennis Lehane’s novel, Affleck tries to cram too much into two hours, and although everything is touched upon, there is very little room to go into any serious depth or detail. Subplots are sidelined or superficially dealt with, while assorted characters are introduced and then almost immediately dropped, while others disappear and re-surface to diminished effect. After a while it becomes frustrating, especially when a lot of it is genuinely interesting, and its haphazard construction leads to uneven pacing, making the film feel longer than what it actually is. It may sound strange, but if the film was afforded a lengthier running time, enabling Affleck to flesh out his story, themes, and characters to a significant degree, the venture may have attained a more fluid narrative structure.

Performances are uneven, a problem amplified by the sketchy, at-times stereotyped nature of the material. Affleck largely appears ill-at-ease here, and his overly sombre turn unfortunately reminds one of Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice. His dreary narration also lacks the sarcastic edge that sparks the best noir classics. Girone does his best Anthony Quinn impersonation as Pescatore, while Glenister is nothing more than a one-note cliché as White. Faring better are Cooper as Chief Figgis, Messina as Joe’s lively crew member Dion, and Brendan Gleeson as Thomas, Joe’s sullen cop father.

Unbalancing the drama even more are the pivotal female characters, who are all weakly drawn and performed. Miller (Layercake, American Sniper) hams it up as Emma, Fanning (The Neon Demon) leaves zero impact as the scarred Loretta, and Zoe Saldana (Guardians of the Galaxy, Avatar) fails to impress as Graciela, Joe’s business partner and love interest. This is doubly disappointing after Affleck fashioned such compelling roles for Michelle Monaghan, Amy Ryan, Rebecca Hall, and Blake Lively in Gone Baby Gone and The Town. Loretta’s fervent religious gatherings reminded me of the wonderful Elmer Gantry, but Fanning is no Jean Simmons.

Affleck’s direction lacks vigour and excitement, and its lethargic atmosphere eventually weighs the film down. The old-fashioned approach is supposed to remind one of the classic movies from the golden age of cinema, but instead it brings to mind films such as The Godfather, L.A. Confidential, The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way, Scarface, The Cotton Club, and Last Man Standing, more recent productions that were obviously inspired by those very films that Affleck legitimately admires and applauds.

Though Live by Night may falter dramatically, the technical side is another matter altogether. Affleck has crafted with extreme confidence a film that is dripping in style and design. From the gorgeous cinematography by three-time Oscar winner Robert Richardson (JFK, The Aviator, Hugo, The Hateful Eight) and meticulous set decoration by Nancy Haigh (Road To Perdition / Hail, Caesar!), to the outstanding production and costume design by Jess Gonchor (No Country for Old Men, True Grit, Foxcatcher) and Jacqueline West (The New World, The Tree of Life, The Revenant) respectively, this is a film that delights the eyes from start to finish. Working with Academy Award winning editor William Goldenberg (Argo, Zero Dark Thirty), Affleck also stages and executes some ultra-slick action scenes.

Live by Night is by no means a disaster, but a greater, more expansive exploration of its compelling subject matter could have elevated it into the realm of greatness, illuminating a world known largely for tommy guns and dance clubs. It’s hard not to have high expectations after Affleck’s previous output as a director, but this patchy effort certainly does not dampen my enthusiasm for what this talented film-maker will do next.

Rating: 3/5

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