Live By Night – Written, Directed, and Starring Ben Affleck in theaters nationwide January 13th
In the history of film, there has been no shortage of gangster movies, and the romanticizing of prohibition era America has been a favorite of filmmakers for years. With a rich history of films within this genre it takes something special for a film to stand out, unfortunately, Ben Affleck’s Live by Night not only falls short of living up to those that have come before it, but also fails to meet Affleck’s potential as a filmmaker. The story of Live By Night is straightforward, it’s about a local criminal, who is given an opportunity to rise up to run a city, and makes his share of enemies along the way. The story is not new, it has been the plot of mob stories for years, and while the way in which Affleck’s Joe Coughlin comes to be in the mob’s employ, sets up for an intriguing plot, the film quickly shifts away from the set up, only to haphazardly come back to it towards the end. The character of Coughlin is a good one, which is why it is such a shame that the story doesn’t do the character justice. Coughlin is a two-bit crook, he would just as well rob banks the rest of his life, but with his hand forced to become a gangster, he reluctantly accepts. His mobster persona never feels like all the other mobsters in cinematic history, which is a good thing, as he never truly embraces the entirety of the lifestyle, something that is worth seeing play out. This is plot point that is the most cohesive throughout the story, and it the chaos around this that drags the film down. There is no less than 4 adversaries for Joe throughout the 2 hour run time, and it may have been better served to trim them down, and flesh out the conflicts. When it all comes to a head, there are about six different endings that take place, which is entirely too many, but it is needed, simply to wrap up everything that the film introduced. Live by Night needs to have taken a less is more approach, because a focus on the elements that worked, would have saved the film from those that did not.Part of the reason that Affleck’s Coughlin is a good character is because of Affleck himself, he does a good job of conveying who Joe is, and what his motivations are. All of the characters actions feel in line with what the audience is being told, and it is believable. While Affleck won’t garner any award consideration for the role, he does carry the film, even as those around him fall short. The main issue with the film is that Affleck cannot carry the film alone, and sadly the supporting cast of characters, do nothing to elevate it. Coughlin’s right hand man Dion, played by Chris Messina, is a scenery chewing caricature of a mobster, and while there are some humorous moments between the two, Dion borders on campy, which contrasts the tone of the rest of the film. Coughlin’s love interest, Zoe Saldana, humanizes Joe, and is simply used to show that Coughlin wants more for his life than the mobster lifestyle, she isn’t given anything of consequence to do, so nothing she is involved in is impactful in any way. The father daughter duo of Chris Cooper and Elle Fanning, which is the focus of the middle part of the film, is good, but the shifts to, and away from this story is very disjointed, which impacts the performances, specifically from Elle Fanning, whose character change from introduction to implementation, causes her performances to be overly dramatic, and more of a plot device than a character. The inclusion of Cooper’s brother in law, as yet another antagonist, is also just a story beat, meant to include the fact that terrible racists existed in 1930s Florida, and at no point feels important to the overall story, just a means to get to the next portion of the film. The mob bosses in the film are also nothing particularly memorable, and are cut and paste mafiosi, whose only motivation is to be bad, and take out their enemies, defying logic to do so.
If there is one thing that Ben Affleck has been known for in the last decade, it is his evolution as a filmmaker. His career has its fair share of ups and downs, but since taking a larger role behind the camera, he has become better in all aspects of his filmmaking process. While the story may be convoluted, and his acting good, but not great, the direction of the film is rather good. The look and feel of both late 1920s Boston, and early 1930s Tampa gives the film a unique style, and the sweeping shots of the landscapes of central Florida, are extremely picturesque. The early part of the film also showcases car chase through the streets of Boston that is rather thrilling, and cut together especially well. The best sequence in the film is a shootout in a hotel, which takes places on multiple floors, and involves several rooms, but while impressive to watch it play out, the way in which it is presented from a story standpoint, removes almost all tension, and makes very little sense.
Live By Night tries to do a lot of things, and in doing so, tries to introduce too much, so in the end, none of it really feels all that impressive, or meaningful. If the story had stuck to even just half of the plot threads that it presents, this film may have been something much better than it ended up being, because the opening, and initial setup provided the potential for a good film that never came.