Movie Review: ‘Live By Night’


Plot:  Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, Live By Night tells the story of Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck), a WWI vet, outlaw, and son of a prominent police superintendent.  When Joe falls for Irish mob boss Albert White’s (Robert Glenister) girlfriend Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), he runs afoul of the gangster and barely escapes with his life.  Compounded with a botched bank job that leaves three cops dead, Joe is subsequently sent to prison.  Upon release, the Boston native seeks revenge with the help of Italian mob boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) who sends Joe to Tampa to take over the rum racket.  There Coughlin rises through the ranks, becoming a notorious rum runner and gangster…but nothing lasts forever.


Review:  If I could use two words to describe director Ben Affleck’s Live By Night it would be wasted potential.  What frustrates me the most about Affleck’s latest outing is that there are flashes of brilliance, but those flashes are overshadowed by the movie’s flaws.  Live By Night I believe had the potential to be a masterpiece, but instead comes off as a second-rate gangster picture.  With three straight directorial efforts that were clear home runs (Gone Baby Gone, The Town, Argo), Live By Night is merely a blooper to left field.

The biggest complication with Live By Night is the running time.  At just over two hours, the film tries to pack so much in, that it’s clear there was a ton left on the cutting room floor.  Consequently, William Goldenberg’s editing looks disjointed and the first thirty minutes of Affleck’s movie are clunky at best.  Live By Night feels like a three-hour gangster epic that got cut down to two.  Originally slated for a late 2017 release, Warner Bros. bumped it up to December 2016 presumably for award season.  Now I’m not going to speculate as to how much impact Affleck’s Batman duties affected Live By Night‘s final product, however I don’t for one second believe this was ultimately the film Affleck wanted.  It will be interesting to see if there’s ever a director’s cut of Live By Night, as it may improve opinions after the fact.

One of the key tenets of storytelling is “show don’t tell” and unfortunately, Affleck makes the perplexing decision to add a voiceover throughout most of the film.  Affleck’s choice is a further indicator that this film was rushed to meet Warner Bros. deadline.  While the voiceover didn’t kill the film, it certainly crippled it.  Moreover, with rare exceptions (The Shawshank Redemption and Goodfellas being two), I find the use of voiceover to be the tool of inferior storytellers, and Affleck is too good of a director to use a weak tack hammer like voiceover.  In fact if I didn’t know Ben Affleck directed this film and you told me he did, I wouldn’t have believed you.


Thankfully Live By Night‘s stellar cast redeems much of the movie.  Reputation and past success are often ingredients for attracting talent, and Live By Night is no exception  The three female leads are fantastic.  Sienna Miller sports a flawless Irish accent and her Emma Gould embodies the carefree flapper spirit of the 1920s.  As Joe’s first love, she’s a stereotypical femme fatale in some aspects but nonetheless steals most of the scenes she’s in.  Zoe Saldana is just as impressive as Joe’s Tampa business partner and eventual lover Graciela.  Graciela proves to be Joe’s equal in every way–strong, determined, giving, and loyal.  Yet she wonders whether Joe possesses the cruelty necessary to be a powerful man.  However, Elle Fanning is the best of the three by far, playing Loretta Figgis, the daughter of Tampa Sheriff Irving Figgis (Chris Cooper).  She’s a reformed heroin addict who seeks to stop Joe’s sinful ways from corrupting Tampa through the power of the revival tent.  The two possess an interesting dynamic, and Joe’s actions (or rather inaction) when it comes to Loretta pay fateful dividends.

The great Brendan Gleeson (Braveheart, In Bruges) turns in another fantastic performance as Joe’s Irish cop father, who’s disgusted by Joe’s life of crime, but remains loyal to his son.  Chris Cooper stands  out as Sheriff Irving Figgis whose descent into madness towards the film’s end poses dire consequences for Joe.  But character actor Chris Messina proves the best of the bunch as Joe’s best friend and right-hand man Dion Bartolo.  Messina’s performance felt the most honest as Messina chews cigars and scenes with equal aplomb.  Funny and fierce, Dion is just as likely to crack a joke or crack your skull.


From a production standpoint, Affleck does a great job of re-creating 1920s Boston and 1930s Tampa.  Everything from costume design to cars, brings the roaring 20s and the Depression Era 30s to life.  The dusty streets and gator laden swamps of Tampa Bay are palpable.  You can almost feel the heat of Ybor City or the bitter cold of downtown Boston, depending on the scene.  Unfortunately, the usually reliable Harry Gregson-Williams (The Martian, Gone Baby Gone) delivers a rather forgettable score.  It’s not Gangster Squad bad but it’s not exactly The Godfather either.

There’s an old expression that says “Humble yourself before God before he does it for you.”  Affleck’s career arc certainly represents that old adage.  He started out hot with Good Will Hunting, stumbled with Reindeer Games and Gigli, and came roaring back with films like Gone Baby Gone and Gone Girl.  Unfortunately, even the greats generate a sub-par movie occasionally and Live By Night falls into that category.  This film will be a minor stumbling block along what will no doubt be a long directorial career.  While by no means a disaster, Live By Night serves as nothing more than a mildly entertaining gangster movie, reminiscent of 1930s films starring Jimmy Cagney.  With so much talent involved, it’s too bad audiences didn’t get the masterpiece they expected.



My rating System:

0-1 God Awful Blind Yourself With Acid Bad
2 Straight Garbage
3 Bad
4 Sub Par
5 Average
6 Ok
7 Good
8 Very Good
9 Great
10 A Must See

My rating:  6/10