Our Podcast Producer Thom Hetherington reviews Ben Affleck’s gangster epic.
Live By Night is a film that is by no means the sum of its parts. But the parts here constitute such an embarrassment of riches that the film still manages to be thoroughly entertaining. It’s just frustrating knowing that it could have been so much more.
Affleck’s fourth film as a writer/director finds him tackling the story of Bostonian Joe Coughlin (Affleck), a crook making a living off bank jobs and bootlegging. Unfortunately Joe’s passionate and dangerous liaisons with Sienna Miller’s Emma, the girlfriend of ruthless Irish mob boss Albert White (played by the brilliant Robert Glenister), soon land him in hot water. Following on from the collateral of this doomed affair, the film follows Coughlin’s embittered rise from bootlegger to gangster, and the people caught up in ruthlessly in his wake.
Trying to write a plot summary for Live By Night is an almost impossible task. The film takes various large leaps in time and setting and abandons and introduces characters at the drop of a hat. There’s probably a 5-hour cut of this film somewhere that’s far superior to this, surprisingly lean, 2-hour 9-minute one. Whilst credit must go to Affleck for trying to cut together a brusque film, the film feels at once choked and freed by its current running time. Live By Night plays like someone took the omnibus of an incredible three-part TV show and tried to make a two-hour film out of it. What’s incredible is that is still stands up.
This quality is in no small part due to the cast, led by Affleck himself, all of whom make as lasting an impression as the film allows (which is never enough). Elle Fanning in particular gets close to stealing the film right out from underneath everyone else’s noses, giving a powerful performance as a victim of Joe’s continued strive for power and domination. Fanning quietly demonstrates complete control of the screen, as easily goes toe to toe with heavyweights such as Chris Cooper. The problem is that the film is stuffed with so many reminders of the cost of Coughlin’s ruthless quest for dominance, many of which come straight out of his own mouth. “Joe was once a good man” is the slogan emblazoned across the marketing for Live By Night, but the problem with the film is that it never delves deeply enough into this. Affleck’s performance captures well the anguish Joe feels, but there’s never a sense that the film truly does. This is a picture at odds and ends with itself to make Joe relatable, but as a result it seriously undermines his credibility as a mobster.
And, as with the poster, this is a problem that’s writ large across the whole film. Robert Richardson shoots the film with panache, cramming in sweeping areal shots and colourful fireworks aplenty, but never quite captures the grit and grime of Coughlin’s life. Whilst the film’s visuals capture the allure and beauty of the gangster lifestyle, the script is telling a story about the misery and nastiness of it, about the sticky compromise of trying to survive. The script itself (adapted from Dennis Lehane’s novel), however, is one of the film’s strongest virtues, with Affleck attempting to marble together rich themes and poetic dialogue with the rough grime and reality of the life Joe leads, a feat he almost pulls off.
Live By Night is a film as frustrating in hindsight as it is entertaining to watch. It’s frustrating to think of how much better this film would have been as a television series. Instead we get a whole saga crammed into just over two hours, bringing with it all the pitfalls and joys that one would expect form this. Whilst the action and acting are second to none, you’re left feeling that it’s a shame the whole film doesn’t live up to these standards, a frustration heightened by the fact that is very nearly does.
Live By Night is in UK cinemas now. See the final trailer below: