by Philip Price
The problem with “Live by Night” is that it is both too much and never enough. Ben Affleck, who has proved himself a strong storyteller in his screenwriting and directing skills, certainly has a fine ambition in his latest effort, but it simply never seems to pan out the way he originally imagined it. This is to the point that “Live by Night” is as big, extravagant, and sexy a gangster drama as one could hope to get made in the studio system today and yet the story is nowhere near as compelling as it should be to make the amount of effort put into the costumes, production design, and other period details matter. The question on my mind as the film came to its one too many endings-none of which are satisfactory, I might add-was, "how did this happen?" How did a filmmaker such as Affleck, with a story he himself adapted from a Dennis Lehane novel, in this time period, and with a star-studded cast that features stand-out performances from the likes of Chris Messina and Elle Fanning end up sinking as quickly as a dead body attached to a boulder in a river? There is seemingly never a clear answer as to how so many promising parts can come together to form a subpar whole, but with “Live by Night” the majority of as much seems to fall on the script never knowing exactly what type of story it wants to tell and as a result, the momentum of the pacing never finding its footing well enough to keep viewers invested. There is always more material in a novel than a two-hour movie can handle and it seems rather than relay what was more or less the same story the source material was telling through the prism of a single perspective or theme that Affleck instead attempted to cram in as much of Lehane's novel as he could resulting in the film feeling more than overstuffed while still leaving the viewer hungry for more. When talking of adapting a book for the screen director David Fincher said, "The book is many things. You have to choose which aspect you want to make a movie from." It seems Affleck might have learned a thing or two from his “Gone Girl” director as this lack of a singular viewpoint is exactly what “Live by Night” is missing; delivering so many characters, ideas, and plot strands it's hard to care about any of them.
“Live by Night” begins with this notion that our protagonist is this damaged war hero who came home from World War I and was never the same man again. That he left a soldier and returned home an outlaw, if you will. The problem with this is the fact we never feel we really come to know who Joe Coughlin (Affleck) actually is. Besides the facts-those of which state he is the son of a veteran police captain in Boston (Brendan Gleeson) and that he's a self-proclaimed outlaw rather than that of a gangster, but for all we don't know about Coughlin one thing is for sure-the guy is a gangster through and through. Opening in the latter half of the roaring twenties we become privy via voice over to the fact that Boston is experiencing its most deadly year in the city's history to date and that much of this has to do with the turf war between the Irish, led by Albert White (Robert Glenister), and the Italians, led by Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). Coughlin comes to be a driver/bank robber for White's gang, but things get sticky when he falls for White's girl on the side, Emma Gould (Sienna Miller). Things go as south as one might expect given these set of circumstances with White finding out about the affair and essentially sentencing both Coughlin and his mistress to death. Being the son of a cop has its advantages though as Gleeson's elder Coughlin shows up just in time to save his son from being beaten to death opting to sit him in prison for an abbreviated amount of time despite his crimes rather than lose him completely. Gleeson is a ray of hope in these otherwise dark moments; offering funny, insightful, and charming deliveries on clever little pieces of dialogue. It's a shame his character doesn't last as long as the younger Coughlin's prison stint for as soon as Affleck's character finishes serving his time (reducing the prison sequence to less than five minutes when it was a considerable portion of the narrative in the book), we are more or less put back into the system of more gangster-like activity without any real objective or overarching arc to propel such actions forward. Teaming up with Pescatore to run out White's moonshine operation in Florida, Coughlin and longtime partner Dion Bartolo (an unrecognizable Chris Messina) travel to Tampa to set up shop and cut profits from the man who killed his beloved and tried to do the same to Coughlin. It is when the movie reaches the more unique, more flavorful vibes of the Latin-inspired streets of Southern Florida that it seems the film might finally find its footing, but while Coughlin comes to a head with interesting adversaries in Matthew Maher's KKK member RD Pruitt and Elle Fanning's evangelizing Loretta Figgis it still feels the movie never knows exactly what to do with such interesting dynamics.
The thing is, “Live by Night” is nowhere near a bad movie. It's a film that doesn't meet its potential, but it's not a bad movie. What saves it from being a totally wasted effort though, is mostly what has been put into the visual elements of the film. Shot by cinematographer and frequent Quentin Tarantino collaborator Robert Richardson, the film is gorgeous to behold on the big screen. The attention to detail only enhancing as much. It is early in the film where we witness a high-speed chase through the streets of 1926 Boston and in every frame there are multiple cars from the era in the background-not just the ones being used in the action. This scene and all of the action scenes are executed in ways that we feel the repercussions of the violence whether it be in this well-timed car chase or the early montage in which the film never looks away from a man being thrown to his death-all of it is brutal enough and depicted as so to the point we flinch at the idea of what is occurring. The issue is that there simply isn't anything within the context of the story the film is telling to make these well executed scenes, stunts, and even individual shots feel heavier or even as relevant as they should. Affleck clearly has a flair for visual storytelling as there are several instances of note here in which single compositions tell as much as they show, but as they are in service of a narrative that never really deserves such depictions it ends up feeling like a whole lot of wasted effort. The same is true with a number of the performances. That said, as the star of the show Affleck is surprisingly on auto pilot for much of the picture. One might imagine that with having adapted the screenplay and playing a key if not the key role in developing the project that Affleck would be well attuned to the mentality and ideologies of his main character, but as portrayed by the writer/director/actor Joe Coughlin comes across as more an amalgamation of clichés from the time period rather than a fully realized individual. At the same time it is easy to see how Affleck, who wore many hats on (and in) this production, might have become so caught up in one area or another that the portrayal of the lead character was left on the backburner. There was certainly reason to believe such multi-tasking could be accomplished given Affleck did much the same on his Oscar-winning last effort, “Argo” (sans the screenwriting), but with “Live by Night” the multi-hyphenate has exhausted himself to the point all of his efforts off screen will go overlooked due to his most visible role being the one most lacking.
“Live by Night” is a gorgeous movie about some ugly people. It's too bad the film never takes the time to zero in on this idea thus becoming little more than a project Affleck can pull from to make his reel look all the more visually impressive. There is so much clarity in some of the images and those of the boat gliding across the sunset reflected waters and through the pieces of land cutting into such scenery are beyond mystifying. Were the film itself able to capture an ounce of such mythos in its story this would have been a towering achievement, but rather Live by Night is destined to forever be relegated to the pile of "what might have been" motion pictures. If Affleck were to latch onto a theme or idea with this film it seems the one he is most interested in exploring is that of what individuals put out in the world always coming back to them, but never in the ways they expect. This is stated early in the film when Gleeson's character tells his son that he was conceived with the hope of fixing his parents' marriage. To place such a burden on an innocent life is to automatically cast blame on the innocent when things don't go the way of the hopeful party. Coughlin was set-up to fail in ways and so, in putting this child out into the world with such expectations, the world returned him to his father by making him that of what exactly contradicted what he'd worked his entire life to repress. This comes to simply be a vicious circle through Coughlin's life as, after he moves down to Tampa, he meets brother and sister Graciela (Zoe Saldana) and Esteban Suarez (Miguel) who have the most profitable rum running ring in the region leaving Coughlin to naturally fall in love with Saldana's character. Through this relationship and through the relationships Coughlin establishes with the local police chief (Chris Cooper) things are shown to come back to Coughlin in ways he might not have hoped or expected, but that line up with the type of morals and ethics he was exhibiting. That this through line of an idea is present shows that Affleck put in serious thought in his screenplay and how he would not only depict this prohibition period, but how he might encapsulate the time period through a theme, but the fact of the matter is he can't nail the landing. Were it not for the sections of the film that include Fanning's scene-stealing Figgis or Messina's consistently entertaining sidekick character “Live by Night” would easily be more of a drag than it already is, but that the film can't illustrate the tragedy of each of these people winding up playing a role in life they never expected is the biggest disappointment as one can feel such ambition boiling just below the surface.