Ben Affleck defied all expectations with his directorial debut, cemented his reputation as a must-see director in his second film, and scored the Oscar for Best Picture with his third. The list of actors turned directors that have achieved such immediate success is small to say the least, and so it’s with a heavy heart I must report his fourth film, Live by Night, is the first misstep in this stage of his career. A proud homage to classic Hollywood gangster tales, Affleck’s nostalgia is just a few degrees too derivative, engaging the audience only when he steps away from genre conventions and explores the complex prejudices of a wild and colourful Prohibition era Florida.
Adapted by Affleck himself (from the book by Gone Baby Gone author Dennis Lehane), Live by Night follows Boston outlaw come Tampa crime lord Joe Coughlin, played by, you guessed it, Ben Affleck. Scarred by his experiences in the war and determined not to follow another man’s orders again, Coughlin runs around Boston with a ragtag group of criminals, pulling haphazard heists while trying to avoid getting dragged into the world of organized crime. Eventually his shenanigans come back to bite him, forcing him to make peace with a big-shot Mafioso named Pescatore (Remo Girone) who sends him to Florida to take charge of his fledgling operation in Tampa.
Unfortunately, this is not a prologue Live by Night feels compelled to tell succinctly. Our time in Boston starts with a whimper and drags us from one piece of dense exposition to another. Then another and another and another. Yes, many of the pieces introduced here play a small role in the film proper, but not enough to justify the tedious and unenthusiastic presentation with which you’re greeted, nor the time wasted waiting for the movie to start. Were the movie as a whole a little less hit or miss you could look past the plodding first act, but as it stands there’s going to be more than a few viewers who lose interest after these early fumbles and never get it back.
Which is certainly not to say that things don’t kick up a gear once Coughlin gets around to shaking up the southern establishment. It’s extremely satisfying watching your lead swoop into town, casually dismantle the status quo and crown himself king of the hill. It’s also more than a little fun to see a corrupt white gentry being told to take a hike as an Irish Coughlin builds his empire around the vibrant and diverse Tampa ethnicities. For all Live by Night’s faults, Affleck does a superb job presenting its world. Affleck revels in the white-suited hustle and bustle of his sweltering setting, painting his screen with the rich contrast and colours of a Floridian sunset and constructing each frame and sequence with a sharp (and very American) cinematic eye.
Sadly, Affleck’s work in front of the camera doesn’t have nearly the same personality as his work behind it. I’ve always had a soft spot for Affleck as an actor, and he can certainly hold his own as a lead, but the characters he plays under his own direction always come up a little wooden in design. Coughlin is an easy character to love whenever he flashes his Irish charm or out-maneuvers one of his rivals, but for far too much of the movie keeps him merely as the audience’s avatar (and sometimes little more than a vehicle for exposition) rather than an engaging protagonist. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this role feels like a vanity project, but Coughlin’s lack of depth starts feeling a lot more problematic when weighed against his general infallibility, Affleck also writing and directing, and a drawn-out and regrettably indulgent third act.
While the big villains of the movie are similarly underdeveloped and at times horrendously cliché (save for Matthew Maher’s delightfully awful KKK activist RD Pruitt), the rest of Coughlin’s co-stars are much more fun to be around. Zoe Saldana is blessed with an effortless screen presence, commanding respect and admiration from all those around her as Graciela, Coughlin’s peer and wife (and very much in that order). Chris Cooper’s Chief Figgis proves a welcome addition to the film, describing himself as a man who knows he must rub elbows and make deals with corrupt men, but would never become one himself. Figgis and Coughlin’s mutual respect and willingness to work together despite being on opposite sides of the law makes for a wonderful chemistry. The same can be said of Figgis’ daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning), who Coughlin can’t help cherish and respect despite her being quite possibly the largest thorn in his side.
And he may not get more than a couple of scenes, but I’ll be damned if I pass up a chance to throw a little love to Brendan Gleeson, who’s as pleasantly brooding as always as Coughlin’s disapproving father.
As with the cast, it’s when the plot gets away from the generic gangster guff and into the town’s politics that the story is able to shine. While moments of greatness are rare, there are undoubtedly some to be found here. The aforementioned relationships Coughlin has with the two Figgises are chief among them, leading to some wonderfully understated dialogues, which carry a warmth and complexity that take you totally off guard. A little less delicate – but equally engrossing – is watching Coughlin deal with the deep-seeded racism that surrounds his new-founded community, in particular the blood-boiling shakedowns from the KKK.
As much as there is some great material to be found here, it’s just not enough to change the fact that Live by Night begins and ends a dull and unoriginal genre pic. When the final act comes around and you’re pulled away from Live by Night’s fun little take on Tampa to be dropped into an underwhelming Mafioso showdown, it’s hard not to feel disappointed. This is doubly true of the totally unearned and unnecessary epilogue. Where Affleck diverts from his mission statement, Live by Night has plenty of great character interactions and meaty ideas to toss around, but more often than not you’re subject to an overly familiar story that looks like it might have been more fun to be in than to actually watch.
THE REEL SCORE: 6/10