For gangster aficionados, Live by Night should be a made movie even if there’s some issues that hold it back from elite level gangster classic status. Director/Writer/Star Ben Affleck delivers a fine addition to the gangster film catalogue with enough new wrinkles that it feels and looks different than its predecessors.
Joe Coughlin (Affleck, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) reflects back on the steps that drastically impacted his life.
A jaded World War I veteran intent on doing things his way, Joe has taken up small time robbery. Joe’s riskier move is dating Emma (Sienna Miller, American Sniper), the mistress of one of Boston’s major mob bosses, Albert White (Robert Glenister).
Joe’s outlaw tendencies have also caused a rift with his police captain father, Thomas (Brendan Gleeson, Edge of Tomorrow). Gleeson doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but he makes a memorable impression.
Forced to work for White’s rival, Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), Joe heads up the Pescatore rum empire in Tampa with his old pal, Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina). There, Jack quickly falls for Graciela (Zoe Saldana, Star Trek Beyond), the sister of a Cuban businessman and begins establishing a profitable new operation.
Resplendent in a white suit, Affleck is so fresh and so clean, truly looking the part of a throwback Hollywood star. Affleck wears the role of weary rehabilitated gangster with ease. He plays off Messina well in some of the film’s best scenes. The overall look of Live By Night is stunning, like the more violent companion piece to The Great Gatsby.
Setting a gangster film outside of New York definitely helps Live by Night’s unique presentation. There’s not a lot of other gangster epics that count the KKK and evangelists as major obstacles for the ‘hero.’
Affleck adapts the screenplay from Dennis Lehane’s 2012 novel. Most of Affleck’s changes are for the better. The characters have less various shade of grey and have simpler motives, which play better with movie audiences.
That definitely helps in a subplot involving Loretta (Ellie Fanning, The Neon Demon), the aspiring actress and daughter of police sheriff Irving Figgis (Chris Cooper). Fanning offers a moving supporting performance in the film’s most effective story arc.
A few narrative problems prevent Live by Night from reaching its full potential though. Joe’s revenge quest gets sidetracked so long it seems like a forgotten plot point. Joe and Graciela’s relationship should have more impact, but it feels cold likely due to Affleck and Saldana’s passionless chemistry.
Clocking in over two hours, Live by Night starts to feel longer than necessary and would have benefited from more effective editing.
Fortunately, Affleck remains a highly effective director of intense, grounded action sequences. The film might not be littered with shootout scenes, but what it lacks in quantity, Affleck ensures they deliver with maximum effectiveness.
Live by Night doesn’t refine the gangster genre, but Affleck offers more than enough unique elements to make it worth checking out. It’s a testament to Affleck’s directorial career that this is his weakest outing yet it’s still an entertaining and engaging experience.
Rating: 8 out of 10
Photo Credit: Claire Folger/WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC.