Film Review: ‘Live by Night’

Live by Night
Courtesy of Warner Bros

Ben Affleck's fourth film as a director has many of the virtues of his others, yet this Prohibition crime saga doesn't zing. Maybe because Affleck plays a ruthless gangster who is also a good guy.

In the ten years he’s been directing movies, Ben Affleck has shown a rare ability to choose projects artfully and wisely, hitting creative and commercial growth rings with each new outing. His first film behind the camera, “Gone Baby Gone” (2007), established Affleck as a serious filmmaker with a flair for mood and performance and locale. In the soulful heist drama “The Town” (2010), he proved he could fashion a real yarn, even as he traced the fate of characters with a life below the surface. “Argo” (2012), of course, was Affleck’s home run: not just a movie that triumphed at the Oscars but one that caught the national mood — it was time to look back at the 1979 Iran hostage crisis — in a way that converted a (somewhat) true story of hot-button politics into a sizzling conversation piece.

That’s a sterling track record, which is why I’m far from alone in stepping up to a new Ben Affleck film with a tingle of anticipation. But his latest movie, “Live by Night,” a stylish and bloody gangster drama set in Boston and Tampa during Prohibition, hasn’t exactly been setting the awards season ablaze, and when you see it you’ll know why. Based on a 2012 novel by Dennis Lehane, the film is sharply written and crafted, lavishly photographed, impeccably acted, with lots of twists and turns — yet for all that, it somehow lacks zing. I say “somehow” because the flaw, or limitation, or whatever it is about “Live by Night” isn’t obvious. It’s like seeing the ghost of a terrific movie: All the pieces are in place, yet as you’re watching it (or thinking back on it afterwards), there doesn’t seem to be quite enough there there.

In “Live by Night,” Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, the dashing rogue son of a Boston Irish cop (Brendan Gleeson), who falls into a life of crime after getting the moral center knocked out of him by fighting in World War I. He starts by ripping off banks and card games, at which point he’s offered a job by Albert White (Robert Glenister), a hard case with scary teeth who runs the Irish Mob in Boston. Joe signs on despite the fact that he’s having a passionate affair with White’s girlfriend — a cynical chippie played with brash down-market style by Sienna Miller. That Joe is willing to carry on this relationship right under a mobster’s nose tells us two things about him: that he shrugs off risking life and limb; and that he’s a born romantic. When the affair is discovered, his life and limbs are indeed busted apart, but the fire in his heart still burns.

After serving three years in prison, Joe goes to work for Albert’s Italian crime-boss rival, Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone, suggesting Don Corleone played by Bela Lugosi), who orders him to go down to Tampa and run a multi-million-dollar bootlegging racket in Cuban rum. It’s in Florida that Joe settles into his life as a killer and profiteer who runs roughshod over the competition, because whatever fear he once had was beaten out of him. When he informs a go-between that his days with the Pescatore family are over, the poor lackey (played with lived-in Southern charm by the 48-year-old — and still terrific — Anthony Michael Hall) can’t believe what he’s hearing; the way Joe uses words to smack him around reminds you that part of the fun of the gangster genre is listening to threats made this blithely. Joe, along with his loyal runt of a sidekick, Dion (Chris Messina), stakes out his territory with the fierce cunning of a wolf. He knows how to cozy up to the chief of police, Irving Figgis (Chris Cooper), a pious Christian who rationalizes organized crime as a branch of Southern tradition, or how to face down a member of the Ku Klux Klan, or when to speak with bullets or the butt-end of his shotgun.

But here’s the thing about Joe: For all his Mob rule, he’s really an upstanding guy who wants his cut, wants everyone to be happy, and hasn’t stopped looking for love. Early on, he meets Graciella and Esteban Suarez (played by Zoë Saldana and the music star Miguel), a Cuban-émigré sister and brother who import the rum that’s distributed up north. Graciella, whom Joe has already locked eyes with at the train station, tells him that they aren’t going to be lovers. And so, of course, we wait for the two of them to fall into bed.

They do more than that: They fall in love. With no complication! Graciella isn’t a diva, a glorified moll. Saldana, speaking in a light Cuban accent, infuses her with a refined sensuality and makes her the soul of devotion; she even plans to open a shelter for women. And though Joe’s criminal career takes him into dark areas, the whole reason he’s doing it is to keep his soul in the light. Which raises the question: Are we rooting for Joe to be a successful ’30s crime king? Or are we rooting for him to be a good man? The film wants you to do both, but it’s trying to have its blood-soaked rum cake and eat it too.

A movie gangster can — and should — be a morally complex figure; it’s not like they all have to be Tony Montana. But watching “Live by Night,” it’s hard to shake the feeling that Affleck, who wrote the movie as well as directing it, was drawn to the material because it allowed him to express something personal — his desire, perhaps, to hold onto things of ultimate value (e.g., his family) in the face of his own propensity to walk on the wild side. He has tried to craft a moral tale of a gangster’s journey, but in “Live by Night” what that comes down to is that he’s telling the story of a vicious hoodlum who is actually a Boy Scout.

The first local to challenge Joe’s authority is RD Pruitt, a loathsome racist and half-crazy outlaw goon played by Matthew Maher, who uses his lisp and leer to create a real Southern-fried creep. He’s the kind of guy who’s begging to be rubbed out, but he happens to be the brother-in-law of Cooper’s police chief, so he’s got protection. This forces Joe to deal from the bottom of the deck: He has in his possession racy photographs of the chief’s daughter, Loretta (Elle Fanning), whose trip to California to become an actress didn’t work out so well. The collision of racism and raunchy scandal and blackmail suggests the kind of witches’ brew that James Ellroy used to cook up, yet the more Joe sinks into the mud, the cleaner he becomes. He springs those photographs on the chief with a touch of honest regret (really? Joe is someone who shoots his enemies in the head). And once RD and his KKK cronies have been neutralized, Joe sets about his master plan to open a huge casino, with the hope that gambling will be legalized.

He runs into the most ironic of stumbling blocks: Loretta, back from her descent into depravity, has become a born-again crusader against sin, and that includes gambling. She turns the whole town against him. Joe is given a direct order by Maso to “deal” with her, but he can’t. He’s too decent (or something); it’s like his tragic flaw. But it’s a flaw that comes off as a touch sappy, and it saps the movie of power.

You could fault Affleck’s performance, but he’s become a more commanding presence under his own directorial hand — he’s focused and sharp here, and looks great in those creamy period suits — and I’m tempted to say that Affleck the actor is subtly undercut, in this case, by Affleck the behind-the-camera shaper of his own image. A different filmmaker might have encouraged him to go to more ominously unexpected places. There’s a lot of surface energy to the pileup of incidents in “Live by Night,” but there’s still something cautious and staid about the material. Lehane’s story, though driven by currents of vengeance and “dangerous” passion, is all a little too worked out. Joe can be ruthless when he needs to, but he never does anything that shocks us (the way ambitious underworld dramas like the “Godfather” films, “L.A. Confidential,” or “The Sopranos” have hinged on shock). More to the point, he never does anything that shocks himself. “Live by Night” is full of incidental pleasures, but it’s so meticulously engineered it only pretends to have room for reality.

Film Review: 'Live by Night'

Reviewed at Warner Bros., New York, November 28, 2016. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 129 MIN.

Production

A Warner Bros. release of an Appian Way Productions/Pearl Street Films production. Producers: Ben Affleck, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Davisson, Jennifer Todd. Executive producers: Chris Brigham, Dennis Lehane, Chay Carter.

Crew

Director, screenplay: Ben Affleck. Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane. Camera (color, widescreen): Robert Richardson. Editor: William Goldenberg.

With

Ben Affleck, Zoë Saldana, Chris Messina, Elle Fanning, Matthew Maher, Brendan Gleeson, Sienna Miller, Chris Cooper, Anthony Michael Hall.

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  1. Jason R. says:

    This is an ultra violent action / revenge fantasy with delusions of grandeur. It is a gussied up “Equalizer” where the plot revolves around a brooding anti hero murdering his way through a succession of one dimensional villains while clinging to a fig leaf of decency because, in Arnie’s immortal words “they were all bad”.

  2. Rand Lowe says:

    This review seemed to be an exercise in how many words he could use to say absolutely nothing. Saw the movie last night. It was the most violent romantic drama I’ve ever seen. There were more twists and turns than a mountain road and it kept me glued to the screen for the entire 2 hrs and 9 min. Affleck’s acting, while passable, was the weakest part of an otherwise excellent film. Worth the price of admission. Still thinking about it this morning.

  3. Jane says:

    Casey Affleck is a far better actor, and much easier on the eyes. Sienna Miller: blecch.

  4. R. Paul Dhillon says:

    It’s interesting that the main gangster Joe in this film is described as a vicious hoodlum-killer who believes he’s a Boy Scout but isn’t that what America is about – it’s persona is also that it’s a vicious killer and destroyer around the world but it likes to believe that it’s a Boy Scout doing good in the name of family and all that nonsense! So maybe Joe is really America – a killer who is delusional about its real persona!

  5. Judge Gerry says:

    After reading all leading reviews, I am determined to see this picture asap. Under cover of knocking it, they paint it as a thrilling “gangster movie” filled with all beef. It must be seen to be dug. Betcha the usher will be an emisery from the academy awards!

  6. This review has me wanting to ignore it and head directly to the cineplex.

  7. cadavra says:

    Could the problem be the length? The classic 1930s Warner Bros. gangster films this seems to want to emulate never ran anywhere near 129 minutes.

  8. AllWiledUp says:

    Ben Affleck cannot act. He’s stolid and devoid of charisma. Batman’s 2 facial expressions are about Affleck’s limit. It looks like he’s only actually directing now to cast himself in starring roles rather than casting better actors who could make his films more compelling. Sorry, Argo was THE most overrated film in recent history and Affleck’s performance was barely competent in it.

  9. Ginny says:

    The moral dilemma was always going to come across in Joe Coughlin because that is the way Dennis Lehane wrote him in the book. If that is the case , then I am glad that Ben Affleck captured it that way.
    He is the ” good bad boy or the bad good boy” and I loved that in his character in the book.
    I look forward to the film. Looks very interesting .

  10. The movie’s power and timeliness has to do with the clear parallels to our 2016-17 view of immigration via the current dystopian, Trumpian mindset. The demonization of immigrants, something the power of the U.S. was based on, is the thematic crux of the movie and makes it sad, thoughtful and often mesmerizing.

  11. Ben Affleck must be “the good guy” under the circumstances of box office return. No Pacino “Scarface” here it seems. The reviewer is saying a lot without saying that much at all.

  12. Tender Puppy! says:

    Like the film itself, your review teeters on the edge of criticism, clearly indicative of problems but lacking in the so-called zing of being harsh. Have some cajones! Tell us it’s at best a B-/C+ fluffy fare that tries too hard to play both sides of the morality spectrum and is flashy but lackluster as a result.

  13. Roger Buchana says:

    Your review makes absolutely no damn sense.

    “Based on a 2012 novel by Dennis Lehane, the film is sharply written and crafted, lavishly photographed, impeccably acted, with lots of twists and turns — yet for all that, it somehow lacks zing”

    Your review should have ended after twists and turns. Everything after that contradicts what you say about the film again being “sharply written and crafted, lavishly photographed, impeccably acted, with lots of twists and turns.”

  14. James says:

    Just say it, this movie sucks…

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