An altogether dull affair that completely squanders the talented cast and crew at its disposal.
Ben Affleck is a talented director, more so than he is an actor in this reviewer’s opinion, and - to date - his three previous films have demonstrated an impressively deft touch for someone with so little experience under his belt. Gone Baby Gone, The Town and Argo all garnered appropriate levels of critical and popular acclaim, demonstrating both the depth and range of Affleck’s abilities. Live By Night, however, now his fourth film (in which he also plays the lead role and co-produces alongside Leonardo Di Caprio), falls demonstrably short of that mark.
Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, Live By Night tells the story of Joe Coughlin, a disillusioned WWI veteran who “went off to war a soldier and came back an outlaw”. The son of an Irish cop (Brendan Gleeson), Coughlin is a low level bank robber whose abilities soon attract offers from both the Irish and Italian mafia fighting over the illegal alcohol market in Prohibition-Era Boston. Coughlin wants no part of it, but his relationship with the Italian don's mistress (Sienna Miller) leaves him no choice and so begins his troubled rise through the ranks of the organised criminal underworld.
If it all sounds a bit derivative, it is, subject to a few key qualifiers. For one thing, Live By Night spends most of its time in Tampa, Florida, as opposed to the usual bootlegging backdrop of Chicago. The unexpected setting opens up the film to a refreshing set of opposition forces, namely: evangelical Christians and the KKK instead of the traditional Prohibition villains - rival bootleggers or the FBI. It also introduces a Cuban angle into the standard prohibition tale via Zoe Saldana’s glamorous nightclub owner / rum distributor Graciella. Combined, Live By Night becomes less a story of gangland violence and more one of peace keeping, vice and…and…well, that’s just it: there’s something crucial missing. Whilst beautifully filmed and strong in its performances (Elle Fanning also puts in an excellent turn as an aspiring Hollywood actress turned born-again Christian), Live By Night leaves you feeling largely unsatisfied, emerging after two hours from a film that never really knew what it was about. There’s a revenge angle, an underworld angle, a redemption angle and even an exploited masses theme, but not are ever fully fleshed out.
The other big problem is Affleck himself. Coughlin’s emotional range tracks from dull to slightly-less-dull, and whilst it may have been intended as ‘conflicted assassin’, it sadly translates to ‘faded plank of wood’. Coupled with his constant (and exposition heavy) narration, Live By Night is an altogether dull affair that completely squanders the talented cast and crew at its disposal.