‘Live by Night’: A Solid If Problematic Gangster Film | Film Review
Since his career resurrection as a director three of Ben Affleck‘s films have been adaptations of Dennis Lehane novels. Affleck’s most recent effort is an adaptation of Lehane’s Prohibition set novel Live by Night which is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Joe Coughlin (Affleck) is an Irish-American criminal in Boston who runs afoul of two of the city’s most powerful gangsters, Albert White (Robert Glenister) and Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone).
After his girlfriend (Sienna Miller) is murdered by White Joe and imprisoned for three years, Joe decides to side with Pescatore and the Mafia, agreeing to run their operation in Tampa. Whilst in Florida Joe has to face all the opposition in the area, from White’s associates to the Ku Klux Klan.
Live by Night has been seen as Affleck’s first flop as a director, reportedly making a loss of $75 million and only received a 34% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. This is unfair to the film for three reasons: firstly it is a solid historical crime film and it is neither the worst film by Affleck or the worst adaptation of Lehane’s novels.
Affleck’s sophomore effort as a director, The Town was a worse film than Live By Night. The Town was a decent but overhyped heist film that had little subtle. Live By Night had the real background of prohibition era America, drawing on issues like race, class and religion and how they affected Joe’s personal and criminal life.
The main issue that affects Live by Night is it’s trying to be an epic crime story like The Godfather but being told in two hours. This results in some of Live by Night’s themes and characters being cut short.
The film relied on Joe narrating large portions to bridge the gap in time instead of showing us events like Joe’s rise in Tampa and the rise of an evangelical movement who campaign against Joe’s attempts to legalise gambling. In longer films or TV shows these story threads would have had more time to breathe and develop.
The short run time for this, left some characters getting sidelined. Pescatore’s son, Digger (Max Casella) serves as an example of this. He is seen as a potential threat to Joe and his operation and is essentially a bit fuck up: yet his role is made out to be important than he really was and properly had a more prominent role in the novel.
Live by Night lives in the shadow of the HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, a show about Prohibition, looking at many aspects of the era from, politics, law enforcement to issues like the American relationship with Ireland and racism. Boardwalk Empire had the advantage of having five seasons to fresh out all its storylines and characters. Live by Night makes a solid companion piece to Boardwalk Empire but the HBO show is the richer experience.
Whilst Live By Night was unable to match Boardwalk Empire regarding the criminal actions or go into as much historical detail the film does attempt to have a philosophical edge. Throughout the film there is a reflection on ideas of good and evil and the nature of life itself, particularly within the criminal world. The dialogue was a little overcooked at times as characters become introspective but it does help give Live By Night a bit more substance.
But even here the film misses a trick because Joe becomes a bootlegger as he wanted to get revenge against an Irish gangster but ends up getting so absorbed by the criminal world that he forgets why he sided with the Mafia in the first place. This theme needed to be played up to show how much Joe has changed from a robber with a conscious to a full blown gangster.
Affleck attracted an incredible cast for his fourth directing outing, including Sienna Miller (also having a career renaissance), Zoe Saldana, Brendan Gleeson, Elle Fanning, Chris Cooper and even Clark Gregg (Agent Coulson in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) appears for one scene.
Many of these actors signed up just for the acclaimed, award-winning director and their talents are on display – even if some are given underdeveloped characters and overdone dialogue: but this was partly due to the editing reducing the roles. Scott Eastwood had a role but he was cut from the film.
Affleck’s direction is exemplary as to be expected from him. There is a great amount of period detail with the costumes, set design and cars, particularly for the scenes in Tampa which were actually shot in Georgia. Affleck provided some strong action sequences like a car chase after a bank robbery and the final confrontation.
There was plenty of violent criminal acts as gangsters get shot and stabbed – great for fans of the genre. There are also a few scenes that were filmed as long continuous takes which I am a sucker for.
Live by Night was a solid historical crime film that had the potential to be great but suffered from being cut too much. It needed to be longer to allow its storylines to be fleshed out and make it the crime saga it should have been.