Originally earmarked as an starring role for Leonardo DiCaprio through his Appian Way production company, Ben Affleck ultimately took on the task of not just adapting and directing this adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s crime novel, Live by Night, but also taking the starring role as Joe Coughlin, a former WW1 soldier who returns home to America having lost faith in authority, becoming an outlaw in Boston who must then resist the temptation of being drawn into the life of the Prohibition-era Mob, circa 1920’s. That’s just the starting point of Lehane’s sprawling, ambitious novel which would have been a task for Affleck taking on just one of the roles he adopted to make this film a reality.
All three? Frankly, he overstretches himself; while this is an improvement on his dull theatrics in his modern Bostonian thriller The Town, it’s also not even close to being Argo. What Affleck delivers here is overlong, at times treads water, and not only does it lack the punch to be The Godfather, it also doesn’t have the charm & smarts to match The Untouchables. Indeed it’s much more meditative than you might imagine.
For a start, Coughlin is perhaps the most reluctant gangster ever committed to film; he’s no pacifist, and he’s not above crime, but his difficulty with authority–whether it’s Robert Glenister’s vicious Irish crime lord or Brendan Gleason as his weather-beaten police chief father–makes it hard for Coughlin to readily accept a role he ultimately must become in order to avenge someone he loved. This is where it gets messy, and in reality where Affleck should have taken a step back and made Live by Night into a rough, tough HBO series.
Lehane’s novel is packed with ideas and themes Affleck tries to cram in – at times it’s about the Italians attempting to establish a foothold in the Cuban alcohol business, then it’s partly a revenge thriller, suddenly it becomes a beat on faith and the very essence of what being a gangster means in relation to sin, and it even wants to be a love story in the mix. It’s just too busy for Affleck to handle, and it’s perhaps why his direction of actors and its large amount of talky sequences can feel leaden. His direction only comes alive the moment guns fire, cars roar and Lehane’s story engages the classic gangster pulp.
Unfortunately, it’s the women who come off the worst for the stodgy pacing and erratic focus. Sienna Miller tries but struggles with an awkward Oirish accent and a mercurial character we’re meant to invest in, only to have her snatched away for the majority of the picture. Speaking of accents, Zoe Saldana really struggles with a sultry Cuban brogue as the sister of a rum trafficker, and even worse she has zero chemistry with Affleck despite the fact we’re meant to buy into them as the great love affair.
Then we get to Elle Fanning, who should stand out in a signature role of a young, Hollywood starlet to be washed up in sex & drugs who returns to Florida and preaches the gospel, but she grates and ultimately ends up as more of a story cipher to help land a final, maudlin punch – though admittedly she does afford Chris Cooper to walk in and, as usual, almost steal the picture as a repressed, devout police chief in the kind of all-American role few can do better. It’s just a shame Affleck’s women here fail to connect and his men often become caricatures – the only relationship that really clicks is the one between Affleck and Chris Messina as his fast-talking consigliere, providing much-needed quips and laughter in a film which takes itself often drearily seriously.
This all sounds like it was a slog, but that’s not the case. Live by Night boasts excellent production design, truly landing you in the 20’s & 30’s, it’s Art Deco glamor and sinister underbelly of organized crime, while Harry Gregson-Williams delivers an unobtrusive, brooding and mournful score. Props to Ben Affleck for his reach here too, even if he does overextend; at times his direction pops with the kind of life that ran through Argo, which had crucially what this lacks: a strong script. Affleck tries to wrestle too many narrative beasts here when Dennis Lehane’s source material needed greater depth to breathe and live. No question, this has components to enjoy and it’s engaging frequently, but it simply takes too much on to be as classy or memorable an experience as it strives to be.
★ ★ ★
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