Live by Night is produced by, directed by and stars Ben Affleck as Joe Coughlin in an adaptation of Dennis Lehane's novel. Set in the 1920s and 1930s Prohibition Era, we journey with Joe, the troubled and wayward son of a Boston police captain, who becomes involved in a life of organised crime. After serving a prison sentence he's relocated to the neighbourhood of Ybor City in Tampa, to take revenge and build a rum-running empire in balmy Florida.
The first thing you'll notice about Live by Night is its amazing cast and first-rate production values. Ben Affleck headlines a film of superb character actors including but not limited to: Brendan Gleeson, Sienna Miller, Elle Fanning, Chris Cooper, Matthew Maher and Robert Glenister. In front of camera, behind the camera, on the front page and behind-the-scenes, Live by Night is a labour of love for Ben Affleck. Wearing so many hats, you can understand why his performance is diffused, almost trying to sidestep the spotlight like a circus conductor.
He does this to his own detriment, distancing us from the character and preventing Live by Night from becoming a true gangster classic. While Affleck shies away from the limelight, he opens the stage for his supporting cast flourish. Brendan Gleeson is always immense, so much so that you wish they had made more of the father-son relationship. Live by Night is further complemented by a host of fascinating character performances. Sienna Miller is feisty and poisonous as a mob boss's girlfriend. Elle Fanning is haunting as a prodigal daughter in a role that is complex enough to warrant a spin-off film. Her police chief father, played by Chris Cooper, also deserved more unpacking in his attempt to rise above a sea of hypocrisy and moral ambiguity. Then Matthew Maher deserves a special mention for his malevolent and unpredictable role as a diabolical Ku Klux Klan "clown".
While the story has an old-fashioned air to it, the finishes are modern. We are immersed in Boston, where vintage cars line the streets and old world charm abounds in the form of fashion and pop culture from the time. Then, we're transported to the balmy panache of Ybor City. The details in the pageantry are quite exquisite and the film is beautiful to look at, also largely thanks to its hand-in-glove cinematography. It's a tip of the hat to the Warner Brothers gangster films of the '30s and '40s as we chronicle the life of a reluctant gangster in this handsomely mounted crime epic.
"I said... we'll always have Ybor!"
Live by Night slots in somewhere between Public Enemies and The Untouchables. It matches Public Enemies for machine gun action and star quality, but dwarfs this film with its scope as a saga. It's not quite as involved, meticulous or weighty as The Untouchables, but carries a similar prestige and grandeur in terms of its visual poetry and sense of importance. While flawed, it's one of the better Prohibition era crime dramas to emerge from Hollywood over the last two decades, enchanting us with a sprawling tale, gripping performances and a vicious elegance.
It's refreshing for Live by Night to tackle the Ku Klux Klan and racial prejudices of the time. Unfortunately, while it splays these social anomies wide open, it fails to truly grapple with the underlying tensions in the same way A Time to Kill managed to exploit them. As a chronicle of Joe Coughlin's life, these forces seem like a series of hurdles rather than protracted local tensions. While a little slow in places, it's free-ranging enough to keep us constantly entertained, distracted and hungry to link characters and outcomes. There are many powerful moments and quotable quotes, but Live by Night seems content to circle greatness.
While it has tremendous scale, Live by Night would have benefited from a sharper focus on Joe Coughlin's inner struggles. The story would have maximised its dramatic tension by dwelling a little longer on the unresolved father-son issues, the strife caused by racial prejudice, his projected daddy issues and the inner turmoil of a man trying to shield his heart from the shadows of his criminal enterprise. While passable, Ben Affleck and Zoe Saldana's on-screen chemistry seemed a little underwhelming given the circumstances.
All in all, Live by Night's top production values, sharp cast, fascinating supporting characters, entertaining storytelling and elegant cinematography make it a cut above your average gangster crime epic. While it's not in the same league as The Godfather, Goodfellas or Gangs of New York, it shows glimmers of brilliance and amounts to more of a missed opportunity than a misfire. While somewhat sporadic, it has enough fine qualities to lean back on, making it fleeting yet enjoyable for moviegoers wanting to immerse themselves in a haunting, swirling and violent magpie of a gangster picture.