By Jack Dignan
Ben Affleck’s latest directorial effort, Live By Night, has a tough crowd of films to follow. His directing career started in 2007 with Gone Baby Gone, blowing audiences away everywhere. It was an excellent crime thriller that showcased Affleck’s potential as a director, followed soon after by The Town. His third film, Argo, was his best film yet, and hitting cinemas tomorrow is his latest movie, Live By Night. Based on the book by Dennis Lehane, author of Shutter Island and Mystic River, this film could easily have been excellent. Instead, it isn’t. It’s merely good, which is a major disappointment.
We follow the story of Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck), the son of a law officer who’s sent away to war, returning home a gangster. His outlaw ways allow him to meet Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), the girlfriend of a much more powerful gangster. The two fall in love, but Joe’s past soon catches up with him, forcing him to deal with the consequences of his lifestyle. Moving to Florida, Joe joins the casino industry, trying to rise to the top and gain control of all alcohol supplies, hoping to knock down fellow gangster and longtime rival, Albert White (Robert Glenister).
The one thing you need to know going into this movie is that this film is not what the trailers advertise. It depicts the film as an action packed, sex fuelled gangster drama, but this isn’t the case. It’s a film that delves more into the consequences of this lifestyle, and that every action has a follow through. It’s more so about life outside of the gangster world than it is about life within it. Joe’s career choice bleeds through into his personal life, punishing him in more ways than he’d ask for. It’s not full of action, more so dialogue and negotiating. If this isn’t your type of thing, or you were hoping for a bit more punch to the plot, I’d understand. It’s not a plot everyone is going to enjoy, but if you can latch on, it’s a fun ride.
The film serves as a throwback to the classic gangster films of old, cinema even becoming a theme that’s transfused somewhat into the plot. It’s an entertaining return to a genre not frequently explored nowadays, the callbacks and clichés plentiful. What you get when it comes to Live By Night isn’t a highly original, groundbreaking movie, but instead a familiar, yet enjoyable and expertly made crime drama set in the 1920s. The plot gets too convoluted for its own good at times, supporting characters coming and going within 30-minute intervals, but when it works, it’s great.
Affleck’s artist vision here is made clear, his skills as a director constantly improving. His way with actors appears to be rather special, able to get the best out of the entire cast. Every moment spent with Sienna Miller is transfixing, while all of Zoe Saldana’s scenes are enthralling and poignant. Elle Fanning comes and goes throughout, arriving at key moments in the plot. Despite an inconsistent and unclear character, she does the best with what she’s got, her relationship with her father, played to perfection by Chris Cooper, an important and much needed subplot.
It’s a visually stimulating production, sets big and lavish and the costumes even better. Ben Affleck’s clothes always looked way too big for him, but other than that, everything felt fitting. Its pleasing design is captured well on film, the camera work a true delight. The shots are gorgeous, perfecting everything from the colour pallet to the movements of the camera. His close ups are big and intimate; the action sequences appropriately the opposite. While it’s not always the case, with Live By Night Affleck’s wok as a director far outweighs his work as an actor. It’s not that his performance is bad by any means. It’s just far from his best, a disappointment after his killer performance in The Accountant last year.
Live By Night’s biggest weak link lies within the plot, a surprise since those responsible for it are Ben Affleck and Dennis Lehane. It’s bloated and unnecessarily chaotic, lacking focus and going through subplots as fast as it possibly can. I haven’t read the book, so I’m purely basing this on the film and what I’ve heard about the source material, but in my eyes, this could’ve made a much better mini-series on TV. Its structure is almost begging for a mini-series adaptation, as new plots arise with new characters and are wrapped up shortly after. The story at hand could easily lend itself to television format, making me somewhat curious as to what a Ben Affleck directed mini-series would be like. Better than what we got here? One would hope so.
To sum up, Live By Night is far from a terrible movie, serving as an entertaining throwback to the gangster films of old. The plot moves in different directions than what’s been advertised, so don’t go in expecting an action flick, but if you can dig what they’re going for, there’s plenty of enjoyment to be had.
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