Ben Affleck takes the Batsuit off to direct and star in Live by Night, a sweeping crime drama set during prohibition era America as Irish and Italian mobs feud over the control of liquor and land. The film, also an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane, stars Zoe Saldana, Sienna Miller, Brenden Gleeson and Chris Cooper amongst a strong and experienced cast.
In his fourth feature film as director Ben Affleck stars as Joe Coughlin, a war veteran who returns to America finding his feet as a petty criminal. Despite being the son of a Boston Police Captain, Coughlin is recruited by the Irish mob leader Albert White into their war with the Italians. Before long Joe is caught up inside the game, engaged in an affair with White’s wife, and being blackmailed into killing his lovers husband by the Italian mobs leader Maso Pescatore. With limited ways out Joe does what he can to take revenge against those who wronged him, working for the rival mob and setting up an illegal liquor operation in Florida.
Sadly despite Affleck’s best efforts it doesn’t quite carry the weight that his previous films Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and Argo do. That being said, Live by Night is still a good addition to the genre. The hustle and bustle of 1920s Boston, and the picturesque setting of Tampa are captured beautifully by some great direction and lush cinematography. The suits are crisp, the cars classic, the acting solid, and the characters are colourful.
Though Coughlin is a self described “outlaw” his moral code is something which endears itself to the common man. Unwilling to have his life and fate controlled by another person, as well as refusing to commit what would be truly despicable acts for wealth, Coughlin isn’t as evil a criminal as some of his cohorts. Affleck plays the character a lot more grounded than some of his supporting cast. Elle Fanning chews scenery like there is no tomorrow as Loretta Figis, the daughter of a police chief who finds redemption through God. But Sienna Miller has a brilliant turn as Coughin’s love interest in the first half of the film, sadly she just isn’t in there long enough.
The biggest difference between this film, and Affleck’s previous directorial stories is how contained they are. The decades spanning narrative is too big to nail down a tightly knit story, and you can feel it. Really Live by Night comes across like an highly polished entertaining documentary reconstruction of liquor, crooks, and what they got up to during the prohibition period of America’s history, rather than a cinematic story of life, death, and the fateful decisions of its characters. Frank Darabont nailed this type of all encompassing narrative in The Shawshank Redemption, but Live by Night has a lot more components at play making it difficult to pull off.
Live by Night is a very entertaining watch, it looks great, sounds great, and has a bunch of terrific actors stepping up to the plate. That being said there is a certain spark missing, it feels like it’s the narrative which falls short, which is also reminiscent of how Lawless also turned out. But truth be told, Live by Night not only had a tough act to follow from what Affleck has already achieved in his young directorial career thus far, but within the genre it belongs as well. It’s a genre of rich, incredibly composed films that have lasted for generations. Live by Night is certainly rich in visuals and talent, but it may not last for generations.