LIVE BY NIGHT
2016, R, 128 mins.
Ben Affleck as Joe Coughlin / Brendan Gleeson as Thomas Coughlin / Sienna Miller as Emma Gould / Robert Glenister as Albert White / Zoe Saldana as Graciella Suarez / Elle Fanning as Loretta Figgis / Scott Eastwood as Danny Coughlin / Anthony Michael Hall as Gary Smith / Chris Messina as Dion Bartolo
Written and directed by Ben Affleck, based on the book by Dennis Lehane
Considering the litany of critical abuse that Ben Affleck receives from trolling Internet fanboys...he really has nothing to prove in the industry.
He has won two
Academy Awards (one for co-writing GOOD WILL HUNTING and the other for
producing the Best Picture winning ARGO) and
has emerged as one of the finest actor-turned-directors in recent memory,
churning out one memorable and impressive film after another since making
his directorial debut a decade ago with the brilliant GONE
That, and he's a far better actor than he usually gets credit for.
His latest effort
both in front of and behind the camera is his sprawling Prohibition era
gangster drama LIVE BY NIGHT, which is based on the novel of the same name
by Dennis Lehane, who famously penned MYSTIC RIVER and the book that was
adapted into Affleck's aforementioned first film.
On one level, Affleck has crafted an unendingly handsome picture
that thrust viewers into its period settings with a stark immediacy and
also has assembled a routinely fine squad of actors, many churning out
reliably stalwart performers to help lend the production some ample class.
Also, Affleck is clearly framing this film as a love ballad to
iconic gangster noirs and pulp fiction, and his enthusiasm can be felt
Sometimes, though, his already established creative discipline is
sometimes lacking throughout LIVE BY NIGHT, which frequently feels like
it's a few script re-writes away from achieving true genre greatness.
Affleck stars as
former war veteran turned crook Joe Coughlin, although he would be the
first the steadfastly emphasize that he prefers the term
He begins his small time criminal career with bank robberies, but
soon becomes embroiled in a heated war between two Boston mafia families,
the first being the Irish led by Albert White (the sinister Robert
Glensister) and the other being of the Italian variety, overseen by Maso
Pescatore (the equally intimidating Remo Girone).
Joe gets in way, way over his head when he starts sleeping
with the Irish mafioso's girlfriend in Emma (Sienna Miller), and when
their affair is revealed Joe realizes that his life is indeed in extreme
for him, he's saved by the police and his own father, Captain Thomas
Coughlin (Brendan Gleeson), and eventually does time for his past
Once out, Joe
finds an unlikely ally in Pescatore, who strikes up a partnership with him
and sends him down to Florida to oversee a massively lucrative rum running
operation...and all while finding ways to stick it to White and his
business empire there.
Enthusiastic for some serious comeuppance, Joe eagerly heads south
with his old bank robbing buddy Dion (Chris Messina), and within a short
period of time he helps Pescatore gain a stranglehold on the Floridian
Now reaching his peak as an underground booze peddler, Joe decides
to push his racket to the next level by perusing gambling, but
complications befall him in the form of a local police commissioner (Chris
Cooper), not to mention that his love affair with a local Cuban (Zoe
Saldana) has made him public enemy number one with the KKK.
Joe's stress level increases when his boss back home suspects that
he's far too soft and begins keeping him on an awfully short leash.
LIVE BY NIGHT was
shot by Quentin Tarantino cinematographer Robert Richardson and right from
the get-go it's abundantly clear that the film is a tour de force
From the rough and rugged streets of 1920's Boston to the vibrant
sun-drenched vistas of Florida, LIVE BY NIGHT's recreation of its era in
question is pretty immaculately rendered.
Affleck does a virtuoso job of transporting us to a different time
and place, which allows for easy audience immersion.
Combined with Oscar nomination worthy set design, art direction,
and costumes, LIVE BY NIGHT feels as authentically lived in as just about
any other previous mob drama.
Affleck, like all
solid actor/directors, also wisely understands how to let his superlative
cast do a lot of the heavy lifting here.
I especially liked Chris Cooper's layered portrayal of his police
chief that's in bed with Joe, but nevertheless disapproves of his criminal
proclivities (his character's tragic story arc also is heart wrenchingly
sad to behold).
Brendan Gleeson is also rock solid in a small, but crucial role as
Joe's deeply pragmatic law abiding father that knows of his son's wicked
ways, but nevertheless still loves the lad.
Sienna Miller also gives a memorable turn as the love of Joe's life
that may or may not be who he thinks she is.
Then there's Affleck himself, who gives a quiet, modulated, and
understated performance that suits his character well.
A flamboyant turn by him would have obtrusively centered the focus
all on him, so his internalized and subtle work here allows everyone in
the film their respective moments to shine.
As a writer,
Affleck does a commendable job of harnessing Lehane's ambitious and
provocative themes, like how the Prohibition created rivalries between
various mobs and how racism, religious zealotry, and a greedy predilection
for money and profit beyond all other imperatives unhealthily weaved into
the fabric of these conflicts.
On paper, there's substantially more going on in LIVE BY NIGHT that
most typical period crime dramas, but Affleck never seems to fully
capitalize on Lehane's juicy ideas.
Part of this has to do with the fact that LIVE BY NIGHT is
bookended by a messy first and last act, the former which thrusts viewers
so hastily into the story that you've left feeling like you really don't
have a firm grasp on who Joe is from the beginning.
The film certainly reaches a brilliantly orchestrated and
undeniably thrilling action packed climax, which showcases Affleck
comfortably in his filmmaking wheelhouse to deliver a brutally visceral
payoff to the story.
Regrettably, the film never really knows when to end and seems to
tag on multiple endings that makes LIVE BY NIGHT seem sluggishly reticent
in terms of closure.
There are also a handful of subplots that are only sketchily
developed, like the romance between Joe and Saldana's character, who seems
to the victim of some lazy screenwriting.
That, and she has very little tangible chemistry with her lead
co-star, which subverts most of the inherent drama in the material.
LIVE BY NIGHT also feels pedestrian and familiar, and even though Affleck is joyously concocting a loving ode to hard boiled crime fiction, he never really subverts them to any satisfying levels. Much of the film feels old and worn out, but invitingly so. Perhaps this film coming off of Affleck's three previous and brilliantly well oiled thrillers has left LIVE BY NIGHT with some mighty big expectations from me...and it never really ascends to the high echelon of quality that I've come to expect from Affleck as a director. Still, the film is as good looking as any he's attempted, and it's underlining story contains some intriguing and surprising detours that keeps us modestly guessing. LIVE BY NIGHT is too conventional and clumsily written at times to come close to achieving greatness, but it nevertheless showcases Affleck's filmmaking passions and desires to tackle new subject matter, albeit with intermittent levels of success.