Review: As a director, Ben Affleck has displayed an adroit proficiency in crafting artfully meaningful takes of crime and drama-thriller. His directorial debut, adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s Gone Baby Gone, sets a high bar for his prowess in mood, characters, small-explosive thriller; the follow-ups, The Town and Oscar-winning, Argo, prove it. A decade after his debut, Affleck returns to Lehane, adapting a 2012 novel, Live by Night, a story of a police son turns a crime-lord during Prohibition era.
Affleck’s homage to retro gangster films is undeniably lavish; only, Live by Night, which was postponed for Batman v Superman‘s production, hasn’t been able to leave our descendants a new classic. It’s a completely a Ben Affleck’s film material, but there’s something about it (I could say it’s his ambition off-screen and on-screen, but there’s more to it), which makes it far less successful than his previous works.
In Live by Night, Affleck is the director, the writer, the producer and… Joe Coughlin, a son of a Boston Irish police (Brendan Gleeson), who falls into the crime life and crawls into his own empire, which reigns over Tampa and Havana, by exploiting the rift between his former bosses.
Like a saga, there are chapters to Joe’s rise to throne. He only begins as a small-time robber working for an Irish crime-lord, Albert White (Robert Glenister), whose girlfriend (Sienna Miller) is Joe’s secret lover. Betrayal and setback inspire him to turn side against Irish’s archenemy, Italian mobsters. His new boss, Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), summons him to Tampa, Florida to impede White’s business.
Soon, Joe establishes an empire as he sabotages White’s by making a coalition with Cuban, marked with his marriage to Graciela Suarez (Zoe Saldana). Joe and his comrade, Dion (Chris Messina), also befriend a devoted Catholic police chief, Irving Figgs (Chris Cooper), whose biggest concern in life is his Hollywood-dreaming daughter, Loretta (Elle Fanning). Joe makes lots of allies in Tampa, but, he doesn’t make those without making nemesis. His triumph has offended the local Ku Klux Klan led by RD Pruitt (Matthew Maher) and his established empire is a subject to be inherited to Pescatore’s prodigal son (Max Casella). Has it sounded complicated enough?
Despite the overly ambitious narrative, Live by Night is poignantly written with profound dialogues and fascinating twists around the corner. It is also visually impressive with exquisite cinematography, courtesy of Robert Richardson, and distinctive art direction (from costumes to set decorations). The ensemble of cast is terrific; Affleck has assembled a formidable face of gangsters’ scene during the prohibition era.
Affleck himself portrays an insecure persona of a crime-lord in the making purposely. We can feel Joe as a once a good man, but harsh life has made him into something else that he actually doesn’t want. Note that Affleck’s protagonists in any films always have a flair for strategic/administering drama; Joe is no different. However, there’s a sense that the perfectionist, behind-the-scene Affleck could not restrain his desire to create a ‘character’ that on-screen Affleck cannot fully achieve. Say there’s another actor portraying Joe, the spirit that behind-the-scene Affleck intended to emanate might shine.
Behind-the-scene Affleck couldn’t also restrain his ambition to craft an epic gangster film as he makes each chapter a poignant narrative stitched by William Goldenberg. While the story stays focused on Joe’s journey to his empire; it takes multiple detours to over-expose quaint secondary characters and subplots, which could be told with a more efficient use of subtexts. It feels like Live by Night could support a narration for 5-7 episodes of a mini-series, which would be more understandable and ‘digestible’ as holistic, rather than cramping them in a 2-hour film.
I am not saying that Live by Night is unfocused on indigestible; it’s actually a feel-good American gangster story—a crowdpleaser with valuable design. It should’ve been a very Ben Affleck film if only his over-ambition to craft a gangster epic as well as his over-attempted obsession towards secondary characters and subplots did not hinder the film from its actual potential. Still, Live by Night is a feel-good gangster film that partially only works.
Live by Night (2017)