A film review by Craig J. Koban January 23, 2017


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 BABY 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 power.  Affleck 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 throughout.  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 "outlaw."  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 danger.  Fortunately for him, he's saved by the police and his own father, Captain Thomas Coughlin (Brendan Gleeson), and eventually does time for his past indiscretions.   

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 territories.  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 technical dynamo.  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.  

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