Affleck’s Prohibition Melodrama Live by Night Fires Nothing but Blanks
Boston native Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck), the only son of decorated police detective Thomas Coughlin (Brendan Gleeson), has returned home from fighting in WWI disillusioned and angry. Determined to be under the thumb of no one ever again, he turns to a life of crime and robs local gangsters, both Italian and Irish, alongside his best friend Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina). Things are going fine until he becomes involved with the lovely Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), the girlfriend of Irish mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister), and in order to live another day Joe must go against his best instincts and join forces with Italian don Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) for protection.
Joe is sent to Florida to jumpstart rum production. Reunited with Dion, the first thing the pair do is to get on the relatively honest Chief Figgis’ (Chris Cooper) good side, promising to keep their illegal activities out of the primarily white neighborhoods of his jurisdiction. They also orchestrate a fruitful partnership with Esteban (Miguel J. Pimentel) and Graciela Suarez (Zoe Saldana), the lethal siblings Cuban émigrés who just so happen to mix the smoothest rum in all of Florida. Things are going great until the KKK takes exception to Joe’s coziness with the region’s Cuban and Black communities, the powerful white supremacists, led by Figgis’ estranged relative RD Pruitt (Matthew Maher), taking lethal pleasure in their attempts to destroy his growing business.
Affleck’s fourth directorial outing Live by Night is, much like his debut Gone Baby Gone before it, an adaptation of an acclaimed novel written by Dennis Lehane. Unlike that wonderful 2007 mystery-thriller, this Prohibition-era gangster opus isn’t very good, the finished film a bloated, by-the-numbers retread that’s emotionally flat and devoid of anything passing for a surprise. It’s oddly pedestrian, and even though it features stunning camerawork from veteran cinematographer Robert Richardson (The Hateful Eight, Hugo) and crackerjack production design by Jess Gonchor (True Grit), there’s very little worth getting excited about. It’s a head-scratching failure, and while a purported labor of love for Affleck it’s still something of a directorial misstep that wastes a lot of talented actors and technicians on a project that’s pretty much dead in the water right from the very beginning.
What’s most annoying is that there is a good, maybe even a very good, movie lurking in the middle of all this disjointed chaos and tedium. As stated, everything looks terrific, while the sound design, costumes and score are all of a very high caliber. As for the performances, there are a number of excellent ones, most notably Cooper as the complicatedly authentic Figgis, while Messina comes steals every scene he’s in as Joe’s trusted comrade in arms Dion, his fiery devil-may-care attitude giving things a notable kick in the pants whenever he is around.
Problem is, Affleck never gives any of his supporting players their due. Miller disappears just as she’s about to get interesting, while Saldana plants the seeds for a fascinating character only to have the script transform her into a faceless homebody pining for her beloved’s return and precious little else. Treated even worse is Elle Fanning. Portraying Chief Figgis’ starry-eyed daughter Loretta who has a yen to make a name for herself in Hollywood, she undergoes the film’s biggest transformation, returning to Florida a haunted victim of abuse and forced drug addiction that’s an ethereal specter of her former cheery self. But the movie doesn’t know what to do with either Fanning’s performance or the character she is portraying, and while the actress has a pair of stunning, magnificently powerful scenes with Affleck, in and of themselves they’re just not enough.
It should be said that the director does stage a pair of phenomenal action set pieces; one an early car chase with Joe and his cronies escaping from the police, the latter a superbly staged shoot-out between Joe, Dion and a bevy of baddies inside a swanky Florida hotel. Affleck knows what he’s doing during these moments, filling the screen with excitement while he pushes the adrenaline peddle all the way down to the floor. These sort of moments hint at the movie that might have been, making me wonder if maybe he’d been given a little more time to tinker in the editing room the director could have made something worthwhile out of all of this Prohibition gangster pabulum.
Maybe, maybe not, as honestly we’ll never really know. The truth is that Live by Night is nothing short of a major disappointment, and from a tired, pointlessly expository voiceover, to overly familiar genre tropes that were trite and old fashioned back when Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney were building their legendary careers making hay out of them, so much of Affleck’s latest misfires it’s difficult to know where to start. The movie, for all its technical genius, even with such a strong, electrifying cast, just isn’t very good, and as such watching it shoot so many blanks for over two full hours is nothing short of a colossal waste of time.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 1½ (out of 4)