Live by Night – Film Review by Frank L
Director: Ben Affleck
Writers: Ben Affleck (screenplay), Dennis Lehane (based on the novel by)
Stars: Ben Affleck, Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson
The last film that Ben Affleck directed was “Argo” (2012) which received huge praise, winning Best Picture at the 85th Academy Awards. In “Live By Night”, Affleck again not only directs and produces the film and plays the lead role, but adds to his many tasks by writing the screenplay, based on a novel by Denis Lehane. The film opens impressively as Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) explains how he lost his moral compass in the trenches of the First World War. At the end of the war, he is back in Boston, where his father (Brendan Gleeson) is an old fashioned cop. Joe finds his metier in that gangland city first as a small time crook, then as an enforcer for an Irish mobster, Albert White (Robert Glenister) before going over to the opposition run by an Italian godfather. This last move brings the action from Boston to Tampa, Florida where bootlegging rum is the counterfeit currency. Naturally there are beautiful Women: Emma Gould (Sienna Miller) of Irish extraction (mother from Cork) in Boston and another in Tampa, Graciela (Zoe Saldana). There are car chases and shoot outs which are made magnificently nostalgic by upright boxiness of the vintage cars.
In Tampa everything gets thrown into the mix. There is fundamental Christianity, the Ku Klux Klan and corruption. There is also a great deal of shooting with on one occasion the slain tumbling over and down the void of a many storied, Victorian iron staircase… a good choice for a dramatic fall. It is all held together by atmospheric streetscapes and luxuriant shots of the waterways of Florida.
However notwithstanding all this excellent cinematography and action the film fails to engage. Joe Coughlin is centre stage and his character may be the problem. He is a gangster who is being portrayed as a sort of nice guy in comparison to the likes of the Irish mobster, the Italian godfather, the fundamentalist Christians, and the various obscenities which comprise the Ku Klux Klan. But he is no Robin Hood. He robs and shoots for his own gain and that of his accomplices.
Undoubtedly there is much to admire in Live by Night but there is a void at its centre. Maybe the problem is that Ben Affleck is involved in too many aspects of the creation of this film. Another participant might have spotted what was the missing ingredient.